An utter delight of a novel – an almost timeless tale of French teenagers rebelling against authority after being wrongly accused of the theft of honey from one of the hives belonging to their teacher. They draw up the village’s medieval castle drawbridge, hoist a red flag and the siege begins. It is beautifully written by Gil Buhet and wonderfully translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury.
Buhet paints a delightful picture of 1950s French village life, the fictional Casteilcorbon is beautifully created with (in my imagination at least) a slightly smaller, much more derelict version of the the walls and keep of Carcassonne, and a series of well crafted and all somewhat flawed characters.
The novel was mentioned by Michael Rosen in an interview on his cultural highlights in ‘The Guardian’, it intrigued me, and within a couple of minutes of reading the interview, I had found and bought a copy on-line. I opted for the Penguin first edition rather than the hardback found by Rosen.
It arrived with the beautiful, yellowing paper with that wonderful slightly musty, ageing smell of the old secondhand book; much as I like the convenience of the Kindle, the cream and orange of an old Penguin is special.
The back cover seems to give more biographical detail on Gil Buhet, than the entire internet combined. He was born in St Étienne in 1908, he started writing for a living when he became editor of an in-house ‘journal’ of a grocery chain; was later a literary editor of a Lyon publishing house and then a bookshop owner in his home town.
By the time that Penguin published ‘The Honey Siege’ in 1958, Buhet had published half a dozen novels. Oddly, Penguin claim that he won the prestigious French literature award, Grand Prix du Romain Français in 1948 – he didn’t.
It is somewhat surprising that the novel has been almost forgotten; this is despite radio adaptations by the BBC in 1954 and 1958, a 6 part television drama in 1959, a reading of it as Book at Bedtime in 1963 and an HTV 7 part anglicised adaptation in 1987; but he is out of print both sides of La Manche.
The little bit of interest caused by Rosen’s interview seems to have plundered virtually all the second hand copies of the novel too, the only copies I could find when writing this post, four weeks after the interview, were £67 for a hardback and £34 for a Penguin edition – a ten-fold increase in less than a month. Perhaps it is time for a Penguin re-issue, assuming that they still own the rights to it.