Sunday, August 24, 2014

Jean-Henri Fabre

Jean-Henri Fabre - Insect Life: Souvenirs of a Naturalist (1891, English 1901)

Open Library direct link
Open Library main page

Years ago I heard that the naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915) was a favorite of the surrealists though after tracking down some of his writings (this was before the internet) I was a bit confused.  What I read was fine, with the kind of personable approach I associate with that era and that too often seems to have either vanished into the "rigor" of academia or the wayward enthusiasm of environmental writers.  But it wasn't obviously proto-surrealist and I wondered if maybe I mis-read and the surrealists hadn't cared.  Which didn't much matter since Fabre seemed like a natural fit for this blog.  Then I found a piece by Donna Roberts that confirms the link and gives more detail than I had before.

Despite any of that Fabre is interesting because of how he might fit into any literary canon.  Literature is typically approached and taught, as others have pointed out, as basically novels, short stories, lyric poetry, a few plays and some odds and ends.  Memoirs and autobiographic writings have edged in recently but still the emphasis is on what's easily teachable and the results of a certain type of creative process.  Naturalists and science writers don't fit here, usually sent over to history of science.  Of course this is all recent - a century ago "literature" would have included Fabre and all sorts of letter writers, travel accounts, religious texts and so on that rarely fit literature classes.

The other aspect of Fabre's place is that he's mostly unknown in the Anglo-American world.  There are a few stray reprints (currently Dover and Beacon have a volume each) but he's not somebody I would expect even a well-read person to know.  But I gather that in France he's more a standard, if second-tier, author (though my sense of this is quite likely off considering that it comes from stray second-hand reports over the years).

Many of Fabre's books are available from Open Library and other sources and from skimming they seem to be very similar.  I chose Insect Life because this is a translation of the first volume of Souvenirs entomologiques though I don't know whether it's complete or not.