The New York Times, October 23, 1960

One Summer In Boyhood

THE DAYS WERE TOO SHORT. By Marcel Pagnol. Translated by Rita Suisse from the French "Le Gloire de Mon Père" and "Le Château de Ma Mère." 335 pp. New York: Doubleday & Co. $4.50.


Marcel Pagnol is a shining literary celebrity in France, and in Marseilles, his home-town, he is a hero. This is because he has immortalized the town in a famous dramatic trilogy: "Marius," "Fanny," "Cesar." From this trilogy he has produced, on his native ground, three classic films, with the same names. The plays, the characters and their foibles are part of French folklore. When they are revived in Paris, as they constantly are, one reads in parentheses after the author's name on the posters: Membre de l'Institut. Pagnol is one of the forty Immortals of the French Academy; he enjoys this immortality all the more as he is very much alive to savor it.

Pagnol occupies Chair Number 25 in the Academy; in an amusing passage in "The Days Were Too Short" he provides a formula, regional, for getting into this particular chair. To this reviewer he once said, without condescension but with commiseration, as a delicate indication of the higher esteem in which French writers are held in comparison with American: "You know, as a Member of the Institute, at official dinners, I outrank Ambassadors!" Pagnol loves the official uniform, very elaborate and tasty. He loves the ceremonial sword. He loves laying cornerstones and opening bridges.

Pagnol has written novels, translated the Eclogues of Virgil and "Hamlet" and made a film version of "Letters From My Windmill" by his spiritual ancestor, Alphonse Daudet, who also specialized in the Midi. For many years he was, like his father, the hero of "The Days Were Too Short," a schoolteacher. It is the second time he has employed his father as a protagonist; the first was in his sharply satiric, and very funny play, "Topaze," played here by Frank Morgan.

This entrancing book is the recollection of a summer holiday spent as a child with his family in a rundown farmhouse in wild country outside Marseilles. Reading it, one apprehends all the qualities that have made Marcel Pagnol the eminence he is: his enormous gusto for life, his humor, sympathy and wit, his keen satiric sense and his inexorable eye for reality.

It is this love for life that makes "The Days Were Too Short" a rarity; it is a recollection instinct with happiness. On the ineffable holiday here described, Marcel made a fast friend, a peasant boy named Lili. The love the young Pagnol felt for his father and mother, for his uncle and aunt and his cousins and for Lili flows abundantly through this book in a living stream.

The book is divided into two parts: the first is called "My Father's Glory" and the second "My Mother's Castle." The glory is achieved by Marcel's father on a hunting adventure with a considerable assist from the boy. Marcel's father and uncle Jules promise to take him along on the first day's shoot, but he finds out that they don't mean to; he determines to go anyway; he gets up at 4 in the morning and departs before they do. That day was surely not long enough for what it contained: following the mountain ridge the boy gets lost, bruised and famished with hunger and thirst; in his agony he keeps his spirits up by a maxim he had picked up in Fenimore Cooper: "The bullet that can kill me hasn't been cast, yet!" The long adventure is a saga Mark Twain would have appreciated.

It is grievous to have to report it, but the summer came to an end. One day in Marseilles Marcel got a letter from Lili, woefully mispelled. Marcel, as a child, was a lover of words and from his uncle Jules he learned many fragrant ones: damasquiné, Florilège, filigrane, archiépiscopal, plenipotentiaire. When Lili's painfully illiterate letter came Marcel went at once to the stationer's, bought some beautiful, lace-edge writing paper and composed a superb letter, with the help of Larousse—but he didn't send it.

During the night he went downstairs and rewrote his letter to Lili, filling it with calculated mispellings and sent that. "Children," Pagnol writes, "hardly ever knew real friendship. They only have chums or accomplices, and they change friends as they change schools or classes or even school benches." This history of his relationship with Lili would seem to contradict that.

There is one villain in the book—a bullying château keeper—who causes Pagnol's parents much distress. That story runs through "My Mother's Castle." Years later when Pagnol returned to Marseilles to found his own film company, he remembered his mother's pain and his father's humiliation. The renewal of rage was so poignant that he picked up a huge stone and threw it at the vanished offender. ''The Days Were Too Short" is a glowing memory but a searing one, too.

A veteran dramatist, Mr. Behrman collaborated with director Joshua Logan on the libretto of "Fanny," the musical based on Pagnol's trilogy, "Marius," "Fanny" and "Cesar."

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