Nature Stories

Julian Barnes writes:

A year before publishing Histoires naturelles in book form, Renard compared his approach to that of Buffon, the 18th-century naturalist (and grand seigneur to Renard’s country lad). ‘Buffon described animals in such a way as to please humans. Whereas I want to please the animals themselves. I would like my book, if they could read it, to make them smile.’ This makes Nature Stories sound cuter than it is. There is not a streak of sentimentality in Renard, and the world of Jemima Puddle-Duck is far away; bunnies here are flopsy only when in the mouth of a gun-dog. Animals are given their full reality and dignity, strangeness and purpose. Buffon and other traditionalists also liked to impose on the natural world a hierarchy reflecting that of human society: thus the horse is nobler than the donkey, the swan posher than the goose. Renard, by contrast, is a socialist among the animals. He looks at disregarded or unattractive beasts with understanding: he rehabilitates the bat, and thinks the pig’s squalor our fault rather than his – ‘If they cleaned you up, you’d look fine. If you neglect yourself, it’s their fault.’

(LRB 30 June 2011)