KP Reads

‘The Lost Upland: Stories of Southwestern France’


I no longer remember when I first encountered the poems of W.S. Merwin, but it was likely in some snooty magazine back in the 1980s I had no business reading. Once discovered, I sought out his poetry but was still suitably stunned to find this work of prose on a bookstore shelf in 1992. It was just one of 50 titles he published before his death in 2019, nine years after becoming Poet Laureate of the United States.

I’ve bought “The Lost Upland” at least four times in the decades since discovering it because I kept giving it away to other writers. I reread it each time and each time I learned something new.

The book is a collection of three novellas set in the Dordogne region of Southwest France. It is a countryside of farms, pastures and middling vineyards among stone villages first built by the Gauls on a limestone plateau pierced with caverns painted by prehistoric hunters. It’s a sleepy place where locals try to resist the creeping foreigners — meaning people from other parts of France — with their urban values, so busy driving up prices, tearing down ancient monuments to expand roads, and building fake chateaux among the sheep runs.

Remind you of any place?

Merwin begins with “Foie Gras,” told in a close third person where the omniscient narrator is not part of the action but always nearby, commenting on the personality of the main character while telling his story.

We follow the final days of Pierre le Comte, a local man clinging to minor nobility status long after that was fashionable, trading antiquities of unknown provenance while trying to maintain a crumbling mansion and an elderly mother who traveled only by horse and carriage until the war, when she ceased to travel at all.

“But before any of those obvious and more or less explicable misfortunes within living memory, Pierre mourned remoter cataclysms, vaster and more vague, that had swept away whole eras and domains, and in his daily assumptions he relinquished none of his titles to those lost expanses.”

It is with such skill Merwin not only tells the story of the man but invites a reader to inhabit his skin.

The second story, “Shepherds,” begins with the only direct information Merwin reveals about his own presence on the upland:

“For a few years I had a garden in a ruined village.”

He befriends an unpopular neighbor who favors wearing a snug red satin tracksuit over his stout frame while driving sheep through town. Merwin writes that M. Vert, a respected landlord on the lane, “regarded the entire costume, which obviously had been imitated from pictures in the sports sections of the papers, as evidence of insanity and a deliberate affront to the world as it should be. That he wore no hat was the ultimate mark of depravity. ‘He’ll kill himself.’ M. Vert washed his hands of the whole bad business.”

But such aesthetic distance cannot shield Merwin from his neighbors’ tragedies. If anything, it binds them together.

“Blackbird’s Summer” is the final novella, on the surface the daily routine of an aging wine merchant making his rounds “from farm cellar to farm kitchen to farm cellar to farm kitchen,” rolling out barrels of wine of various sizes and quality to a diminishing list of clients. Merwin returns to third person here, but it is less intimate and more solemn than the preceding stories, without the familiar arch intonations winking to the reader. Here we see only what Blackbird sees, and seem to hear what he hears, but knowing his feelings is a privilege earned.

M. Blackbird slumps through the world around him knowing it must change even if he will not. (“How could there be so many strangers in a place he’d known all his life?”) He commiserates with clients at one languid meal after another as he attempts to settle his own final arrangements. (“Try the lamb, a little salad, a little glass for the health. Well then, for the health.”) And he is constantly called upon to deliver wine, to deliver advice, and to deliver embarrassed but suffering personages to the healing waters of a secret spring that seems to offer more than he will reveal.

But it is through the mundane that much is revealed. Over a minor disagreement about redecorating her dining room, Blackbird understands his daughter is dying, like his wife just a year before, and doing nothing to stop it — or is that fear clouding his judgment?

Later Merwin has Blackbird sitting in the village square over a small glass, “for the health.” In a rare moment alone, he realizes he has already come to a decision he’d been dreading about finalizing his affairs. “He felt as he did when he was playing cards, sometimes, and everything depended on something out of sight, though he seemed to hold it in his hand.”

Despite our closeness to him, Blackbird knows things he’s not telling us, treating us just like family. While he may let us keep him company on his rounds, we don’t know where they will end, or their real purpose. Much like the secret trips to the healing spring, redolent of sulfur, where water is consumed “for the health” — really. He reassures one reluctant pilgrim, “As for the taste, that’s not what you’d drink it for. In any case I’m not a great appreciator of water, you know. In my calling.”

Some readers return to their favorite books many times always to find different stories waiting for them. The names are the same, the places, the action perhaps — what they remember of it. But the story is different because the reader is different. The longevity of this one, so far as I can tell, is that it is a look into the heart of a gifted writer. The story evolves as one learns to recognize more of that heart, and one’s own.