Who was MacDonald Harris?
Who was MacDonald Harris? I previously stated that, until recently, I didn’t know. It was only due to the intervention of Michael Chabon–via a remembrance of Harris published in The New York Times, not by, like, a chat while we waited in line at the grocery story–that I heard of Harris at all. But, boy, am I glad I did. I suspect that The Treasure of Sainte Foy (1980) will be the first of many Harris novels I consume. *assumes book plow position*
The Treasure of Sainte Foy (1980)
If you look up The Treasure of Sainte Foy on Goodreads, of which many of my readers–“many” being a relative term when applied to three people–are members, you’ll see that it has an average rating of 2.85 stars. (Oh, to be even 85th of a star! But I digress.) I suspect that The Treasure of Sainte Foy is so poorly rated because it is such a deceptive novel. Its dust jacket copy describes it as a “thriller,” which in 1980 must have meant something different than it does today. We’ll call it a “heist novel,” but even that is misleading. Is it literature posing as crime fiction, or vice versa? Can a reader always make a meaningful distinction between the two?
The Treasure of Sainte Foy nominally tells the story of some amateur criminals’ attempt to rob a French village church of the book’s titular wealth. Patrick, a failed art historian, is the outfit’s “recon” man. He travels to Conques to survey the church’s security and the layout of the village. Posing as an art historian is excellent cover: It provides a ready explanation for Patrick’s interest in the treasure and his habit of taking photographs. Despite a certain steadfastness of habit, Patrick meets a woman, as he must; it is essentially dictated by the structure of stories such as this. Marie-Agne is a docent at the church, and her political leanings–she is something of a Languedoc populist–make her a likely ally in Patrick’s mission. It goes without saying that the heist does not go according to plan.
The Treasure of Sainte Foy is about the ways in which we deceive ourselves, and others, through the narratives we create. Patrick is a perfect example. Denied tenure, Patrick rejects the “bourgeois” lifestyle to which he otherwise would have committed himself, but only in petty ways. He foregoes underwear and socks. Despite a fear of colds, Patrick refuses to carry the vitamins he believes ward off sickness, choosing instead to “lose” a few vitamins in the lining of his luggage, to be conveniently “discovered” at need. So it is with all the novel’s characters, with the exception of Marie-Agne, who remains something of an ironic enigma. (Early on there is a particularly well-done scene between Anstruc, the local constable, and Patrick, in which Anstruc warns Patrick not to rob the church without ever directly saying so.)
I suspect that the negative reaction to The Treasure of Sainte Foy is due to how understated it is. The first chapter is a present tense description of Patrick’s trip from his Toulouse flat to Conques. Patrick loads and unloads the elevator in his building. Readers accustomed to immediate action might be put off, but this is all very well done. Harris is embodying the old writers’ saw, “show, don’t tell.” By showing the reader Patrick’s behavior as he loads the elevator, Harris reveals a wealth of information about Patrick’s character, and, ultimately, the direction of the story. That Harris does it so simply and with so few words is itself a deception–it is a testament to his mastery of the craft of writing.
I wouldn’t say that The Treasure of Sainte Foy is a great book. It certainly isn’t a “classic.” But it is so well done, so minutely crafted, that it deserves to be read. Highly recommended for patient readers willing to step outside of “genre fiction.”
“Today” I “use” a lot of “quotes.”
- Nearly anything by Michael Chabon, I suppose. (I read The Treasure of Sainte Foy immediately after finishing Wonder Boys.) Different styles, but Chabon was Harris’s student.
- For a similarly understated but more apocalyptic take on the crime novel, see The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters.
- If you like evocations of the European countryside, with a more supernatural bent, consider The String Diaries by Stephen Loyd Jones.