Friday, March 04, 2011

The Fragrance of Grass

Guy de la Valdene's new memoir The Fragrance of Grass (title from a line in a Jim Harrison poem) is out, and it is wonderful, even better than his earlier good books I think.

It is an unusual combination of almost Proustian (but rural) memoir and sporting reminiscence, perhaps with echoes of Turgenev's "notebooks" as well, haunted by time in a not- unpleasant if sometimes melancholy way. It is an account of growing up in France and America, with many dogs, a lot of food (not indulged in a "piggy" way but as a part of life), and enough shooting both humble and elevated to allow it to be reviewed in hook and bullet venues though it quite transcends that category. As I am sure he would admit, he has had a fortunate life.

I find his recurring emphasis on the importance of dogs and the sadness inevitably induced by their short lives especially touching. He isn't weepy-- no "I knew an old dog who died" tales, as we used to call the genre at Gray's, soon warped into "I knew an old Jeep that died" and worse-- but just an honest love for our necessary companions, something he shares with his friend Tom McGuane, who once sent me a letter of condolence on a spaniel's death. Some people just get it.

The details of (very far from fancy at home) life in Brittany are fascinating and not at all, to use that word again, "elevated". Of course my mother never shot an elephant with "Pop" Percival-- her first and last game animal, incidentally.

His tales of farmers' drives in France, now long gone, beat those of later stuffy commercial ones. His driven- shoot set piece and tour de force is the story of a perfect day in his twenty- first year, when he has his uncle's gift pair of Holland Royals modified and finally shoots, magically, with them at the book's fanciest shoot. For the first time, he does so well that his raffish mentor doesn't "poach" his birds.

He also summered one year in his teens on a Highland estate where he was given a choice of a Holland 7mm Royal and a 6.5 Mannlicher bolt (WITHOUT "un- sporting" scopes) for stags. He wounded one and acquired a lasting distaste for deer hunting, though he honestly admits he still loves venison, if not haggis ("shit pudding").

These days he shoots partridge in Montana behind easygoing dogs like working cockers, and quail on his Florida farm. At a certain age, close or familiar begins to look exactly right. "The past is a different country".

The only thing I don't love about the book is one of the blurbs. Howell Raines says the book "...confronts the haunting question of whether the beauty of the hunt can ever justify its savagery." That is not what a hunter's ambivalence is about-- I very much doubt this hunter and his dogs will ever turn vegetarian.

When I got the galleys last fall I wrote Guy the next day: "Got it yesterday and sat up reading with a couple of glasses of vodka, marking passages and reading aloud to Libby, until I finished at 1 AM.

"It is your best I think. It is bravely honest about things nobody talks about, and funny and sad and haunting. You "get" dogs exactly, and being an aging hunter and lover of our world and all the vanishing things."

I'll stand by that.


Chad Love said...

Well hell, I just requested a review copy from Lyons yesterday, but I see that's now unnecessary, I'll just direct everyone (all seven of them) here...

Great review. Can't wait to read it.

And I think Howell Raines' description is "haggis"...

Tom Condon said...

Bravo. Any man that bird hunts near Circle, Mt., gets it. Tom Glendive, Mt.

M.L. Miller said...

Thanks for the review. I'll definitely buy this one. I have read his other books. I liked the bird hunting ones.

His novel "Red Stag" is fantastic and definitely another one Querencia readers should check out. It's a page turner with a wonderful assortment of sporting and country pursuits.

Steve Bodio said...

Yes to that, Tom!

Janeen said...

Damn you. The last thing I need right now is something to add to my reading list.

This winter for the first time in my life I've fallen behind on reading due to health issues and related crap but working dogs, food and [sigh] the smell of grass are too alluring to ignore.

I love fine perfume. A while back I paid too much money for a bottle of discontinued fragrance marketed as "the smell of fresh cut grass". The scent absolutely lived up to its name and once a week when I'm surrounded by the bitter cold of a Minnesota winter I indulge in wearing a scent that brings me back to summer - the fragrance of grass.

The smell makes me so happy and brings so may wonderful memories that I just can't resist a book with that title.

LabRat said...

Howell Raines says the book "...confronts the haunting question of whether the beauty of the hunt can ever justify its savagery." That is not what a hunter's ambivalence is about-- I very much doubt this hunter and his dogs will ever turn vegetarian.

Aw, I doubt he thinks anyone should turn vegetarian. He just thinks we should outsource the killing and the moral troubles to some lumpen prole in a stockyard.

Steve Bodio said...

I think you have Raines down cold.

PBurns said...

Ha! I'm reading this right now. One of two books in the car (ignore the three on the nightstand). Well written. But really, who grows up in a house with a moat??

Steve Bodio said...

Le Comte de la Valdene?

A pretty regular guy (pun intended) anyway...