Mont Saint Michel for Changing Times

Roger Vercel’s 1938 novel about the mount still entices

Tides of Mont St.-Michel book cover

A 1938 novel about Mont Saint Michel in France still has relevance today.

What I like about Mont Saint Michel is that the closer you climb to the top of the mount, the farther you are from the touristy crappiness that can accompany any highly popular destination. Ascending the mount in France is like ascending to heaven; you get past the jostling crowds, the temptation for crepes, and, amazingly, in a place so frequented, you get some quiet, a bit of peace of mind, a moment to contemplate. Then, too, you get to walk through history, from this place’s start around the year 709 A.D. when an archangel appeared to a priest—repeatedly—to inform him that upon this rock a church would be built, despite its less than optimal location for building materials and workmen in a time way, way before electricity. This plot of land is also prone to rising waters. Also, there is quicksand. Understanding the phases of the moon and their pull on water is a necessity here.

I am delighted to discover a novel written before World War II whose main character lands to me what would be a dream job: serving as a tour guide at Mont Saint Michel. In Roger Vercel’s Tides of Mont St.-Michel, a 1938 novel published by Random House and translated by Warre Bradley Wells, main character André starts his new job even before tourist season begins, so he gets to wander the place without benefit of crowds. Some days, only a handful of visitors show up at all. Can you imagine?

Yet, for our main character, getting a gig on the mount is not, at least at the outset, a coveted spot; it’s a place of last resort at a time when the world knows Depression, when his father-in-law offed himself due to some unscrupulous business dealings, when this perhaps less-than-ambitious son-in-law now had to find his way more clearly in a very challenging world. Things get so bad he and his haughty wife go to stay with his dad and stepmom for a short period but are quickly disinvited because the wife can only get along with her kind, on her terms, and the stepmom is indulging in neither.

Quicksand and changing tides pose threats to locals and to tourists at Mont Saint Michel in France. Photo credit: L. Tripoli

Quicksand and changing tides pose threats to locals and to tourists at Mont Saint Michel in France. Photo credit: L. Tripoli

It’s André’s wife who has so many connections, but his dad is the one who helps his son get this job. André and wife Laura are embarrassed that this is where Mr. Suit-wearing-entitled-to-an-office-job lands, that they’ll be living in quarters once used for prisoners (housing for tour guides on Mont Saint Michel is a perq!), that this breadwinner will have to hold his hand out for tips. Here on the mount, André and Laura will be socializing with different sorts: with cockle gatherers, with brutish spouses, with bar maids, with one-time prostitutes. White collar meets blue collar, elitist clashes with the working class. The book would be a bit more amusing if the wife of our tour guide wasn’t so despicable; in addition to a preference for silk stockings and shopping, she, shall we say, hasn’t always exactly been loyal to her man.

What makes the book worthy even today is its explanation of life on Mont Saint Michel and its portrayal of people working with the tides, making their living, needing the mount’s bells to guide them out of danger when the mists and the water come in too quickly. Problems of the 1930s seem like problems of today—there’s a fish shortage due to nearby large fisheries, there are tourists acting self-entitled and placing themselves in danger, no one wants a bridge to the island but they do want to be able to park easily and to leave easily, the mount needs to be preserved but it needs people to visit it for it to be preserved.

Will our main character André stay with his mean-girl wife? Will they remain on the mount? Will he land a more presentable job in Paris? Will they be happy? And what will he learn as he roams through Mont Saint Michel?

Tides of Mont St.-Michel is worth seeking out even though it is an old book. A reader will appreciate Mont Saint Michel’s history and construction and placement so much more thanks to the author’s engaging story.

—Lori Tripoli

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