Occitania, a large region of Southern France that includes parts of Spain and Italy, has been for centuries crisscrossed by traders and traveling folk from the far reaches of Europe and Northern Africa. Its ancient language, Occitan or langue d’oc, a close relative of Catalan, was immortalized as early as the 11th Century by troubadours, the traveling poets, serenading chivalry and courtly love. Though annexed gradually in the early modern era by the French kings, the region has preserved many of its ancient customs, the language, cuisine, the tradition of wine making. Born here in the 1950s, Tita, the heroine of Marie Houzelle’s eponymously titled novel, inherits this rich culture at the moment of crisis.
After World War II, life in a small Occitan community is dominated by the Catholic church and the old class structure separating the landed bourgeoisie from the farmers and day-laborers. But the depressed wine business and the growing trend for the young people to seek opportunities in the cities, outside of traditional occupations, threatens to drain the region of all lifeblood. A daughter of a wine-seller and a self-made woman who before marriage owned a beauty salon in Lyon, Tita sees her father’s business suffering from the lack of demand while her mother enjoys playacting a fashionable lifestyle. She must have a crocodile-skin handbag for her birthday; her daughters must have two first communions, the private and the solemn, each accompanied by new outfits and lavish parties.
Tita’s favorite pastime, besides reading, is making herself an inconspicuous listener in the rooms where adults gossip and talk business. This way, she learns that she was an illegitimate child, born before her parents’ marriage; that to correct the family’s finances, her father is considering taking a teaching post in Mexico. As things stand, her father won’t be able to provide the dowry for his three daughters, a heavy burden of responsibility for a man born in the 19th Century.
From her opening lines, “I’d like to be a nun. Or a saint,” it’s clear that seven-year old Tita has a unique approach to life. She seems to have been born a vegan: all animal-based foods disgust her. She’s willing to eat a bite of cheese if in exchange she might be allowed to go to church early in the morning, enjoying a quarter hour of solitude; but the very smell of veal, popular in local cuisine, is an offense to her senses. Spiritually curious, Tita enjoys attending early mass or participating in the May Day procession, but she strongly rebels against all perceived illogic of the church and her Catholic school. Tita debates, for instance, with her Catholic teacher, mademoiselle Pelican, on the matter of Pope’s infallibility. “[Pelican] had to admit it in the end: if Pius XII himself told me I’d made a spelling mistake and I had the Robert, my favorite dictionary, on my side, Robert would win.” And, yes, the dictionary plays a very important role in Tita’s life: it’s a great source of comfort whenever she encounters an unfamiliar concept or situation in the books she reads or in conversations between adults.
The novel’s short chapters, each introducing its own internal conflict and resolution, and yet firmly linked together into a larger whole, are loosely structured around Tita’s story of origins and her quest for education, her way of breaking from the confines of mademoiselle Pelican’s classroom and into the egalitarian world of the public school. She doesn’t need or want her father’s dowry to secure her future; what she craves is a kind of education that would challenge her intellectual abilities. Neither her Catholic school, nor the Catholic boarding school that’s looming in her future, would be able to provide that environment for her. And the state run school that could set her on the proper path seems off-limits: none of the children of the upper stratum of the local bourgeoisie have ever set foot in a public school.
A good deal of authenticity in Tita’s observations comes from the biographical details that the character shares with her author, Marie Houzelle. Houzelle grew up in a similar small town, speaking Occitan and French at home, learning Latin in school, writing her first journal in Spanish, perfecting English and picking up Swedish at the university, and German when she lived in Berlin. Just like Tita, she put in her dues at a Catholic school and started writing musical plays for her friends as a young adult. And yet, despite these biographical coincidences, conflating Tita with her author would be a mistake. The novel has strong literary routes, clearly influenced by sources as varied as Proust and Comtesse de Segur, a French author of Russian origin who wrote popular children’s novels in the middle of 19th Century. Tita’s personality quirks are very much her own and are described with a good deal of levity and slight ridicule that comes across even through the narrative first person voice.
In the mainstream American publishing marketplace today, a novel with a child protagonist telling her own story typically would be classified as young adult reading. Yet the label is decidedly too narrow for this witty and provocative work, whose seven-year old protagonist is reading Proust and openly discusses pre-teen sexuality. A few early readers of the novel have described Tita as a “precocious young girl,” but this description, too, doesn’t fully capture the character’s uniqueness. The conflict between Tita’s propensities, the local traditions, and her parents’ attitudes about the future animates the story and works its drama in the readers’ hearts, at the same time the novel also works on a deeper level, raising certain philosophical questions that demand careful thought and multiple re-readings.
A child, no matter how eloquent and well-versed in Proust she is, cannot know enough about the world to make completely self-guided choices about her future. A certain amount of luck is needed to set her on her path, and in addition to luck, a kind of obstinacy and stubbornness in pursuing those passions that will become obvious to people in their lives who can facilitate the work of luck. In Tita’s case, her passion for language and literature itself finally works its magic, allowing for an opportune connection to an adult with enough imagination to solve her educational dilemma.
Tita’s predicament is equally meaningful for children at the beginning of their lives as for the adults who find themselves still searching for a way of living a wholly individual life without completely breaking with the traditional values and remaining vocal and beloved members of their community. Tita is a hero in the sense of the classical epics: she is a leader, a pioneer, who can change things not only for herself but for others around her. And she does this not only by rebelling, by going against the norm, but by constantly searching for creative and unexpected compromises.
In the world of contemporary fiction, Tita is a rare joyful presence on the page, whose first person voice is so strong that at times it’s difficult to see through it the pen of a much older and more rounded, more experienced author. Unlike the rebellious children of classic literature who never grow up—Pippi Longstocking, the Little Prince, or Peter Pan—Tita’s future practically leaps from the page. The reader comes away believing Tita’s dreams: she’s going to move to Paris to attend university, she will travel, have at least half a dozen children with men from different countries, pursue her passions (writing fiction? why not!) rather than get stuck in a career—and possibly discover the cheeses to her taste. Nothing and nobody could stop her joyful if not always easy journey through life, not the lack of money or role models within her community, not her mother, for whom Tita’s creativity becomes a burden toward the end of the book, not her love for her father that keeps her connected with the town of her birth.
Houzelle moved away from her hometown as a teenager and eventually trained as a linguist and a chamber music singer. She combined raising three children with holding various jobs, from writing for a travel guide, translating, and editing, to singing with early and classical music choirs. Having worked in a number of languages, Houzelle came to write prose in English after taking creative writing workshops in the expat Parisian community. She lives in Ivry, a proletarian, left-wing suburb of Paris, and has published a number of stories, many set during the 1970s women’s liberation movement and featuring female protagonists with young children and husbands, who experiment with various professions, friends, lovers.
A prominent member of the English-language Paris writers community, Houzelle is finding audience in the greater English-speaking world. Thanks to editor Laurel Zuckerman, in September 2014 Tita became available from Summertime Publications, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based press, specializing in finding unique French voices. Houzelle’s voice is unique indeed: the voice of a worldly and opinionated French woman who employs fluent and animated, if at times characteristically French-inflected English, to write against stereotype of her countrymen and women. It’s a voice that commands our attention and leaves us longing for more.