A fascinating document of an extraordinary life, Memoirs of A Breton Peasant reads with the liveliness of a novel and bristles with the vigor of an opinionated autodidact from the very lowest level of peasant society. Brittany during the nineteenth century was a place seemingly frozen in the Middle Ages, backwards by most French standards; formal education among rural society was either unavailable or dismissed as unnecessary, while the church and local myth defined most people's reasoning and motivation. Jean-Marie Déguignet is unique not only as a literate Breton peasant, but in his skepticism for the church, his interest in science, astronomy and languages, and for his keen—often caustic—observations of the world and people around him.
Born into rural poverty in 1834, Déguignet escapes Brittany by joining the French Army in 1854, and over the next fourteen years he fights in the Crimean war, attends Napoleon III’s coronation ceremonies, supports Italy’s liberation struggle, and defends the hapless French puppet emperor Maximilian in Mexico. He teaches himself Latin, French, Italian and Spanish and reads extensively on history, philosophy, politics, and literature. He returns home to live as a farmer and tobacco-seller, eventually falling back into dire poverty. Throughout the tale, Deguignet’s freethinking, almost anarchic views put him ahead of his time and often (sadly, for him) out of step with his contemporaries.
Déguignet’s voluminous journals (nearly 4,000 pages in total) were discovered in a farmhouse in Brittany a century after they were written. This narrative was drawn from them and became a surprise bestseller when published in France in 1998.
About Jean-Marie Deguignet
Born in 1834 near Quimper, in Brittany, to landless farmers, the young JEAN-MARIE DÉGUIGNET was sent out several times a week to beg for the family's food. After spending some of his adolescent years as a cowherd and a domestic speaking only Breton, he left the province as a soldier, avid for knowledge of the vast world. He taught himself Latin, then French, then Italian and Spanish; he read history and philosophy and politics and literature. He was sent to fight in the Crimean war, to attend at Emperor Napoleon III's coronation ceremonies, to support Italy's liberation struggle, and to defend the hapless French puppet emperor Maximilian in Mexico; he came home to live as a model farmer, a tobacconist, falling back into dire poverty.
"What makes it gripping reading is not only that it offers a rare view of 19th-century French society from the bottom up; it is also written from the perspective of a lifetime’s experience. He both suffers and celebrates his suffering as the price of his nonconformity. A fascinating account."—Alan Riding, New York Times Book Review
"Linda Asher has now given Déguignet a splendidly faithful English voice: pugnacious, tetchy and opinionated."—David Coward, London Review of Books
"Never a dull moment in his company. Must be read."—Le Telegramme