Poil de Carotte ("Carrot Top"), the young hero of this book, reminds me of my son Jonathan. Jonathan is autistic spectrum and thinks a lot about the past, which he remembers in minute, Proustian detail. He dwells almost exclusively on unpleasant episodes, known generically to his family as "Bad Things That Happened A Long Time Ago". Thinking about the Bad Things can sometimes make Jonathan angry. I have often suggested to him that he should write down some of the Bad Things; it seems to me that this might, in another phrase he likes, Help Him Overcome His Anger. But Jonathan categorically refuses.
Jules Renard appears to have written down all his Bad Things: the book is a collection of little anecdotes, typically a page or two long, written in an elegantly simple late 19th century French. Many of them are quite horrifying. I think the one I was most shocked by was the following. Poil de Carotte, who lives out in the country, likes fishing for crayfish. Someone has told him that nothing beats cat innards as bait. The crayfish can't resist it. Poil de Carotte has a little hut in the garden where he likes to hang out. He takes a saucer of milk and a gun, and persuades an old cat to come into the hut with him.
The cat laps up the milk hungrily. Poil de Carotte feels sorry for it. "It's okay," he says, "I've changed my mind. You can go." But his hands have other ideas, and as he finishes his little speech they point the gun at the cat's head and pull the trigger. There is a deafening explosion. When he can see again, half the cat's head is missing, but it's still alive. It's jerking around feebly and looking at him out of its one remaining eye. Poil de Carotte knows he has to put it out of its misery. He clubs it with the rifle butt, kicks it, punches it, but the damn thing just won't die. Finally, he decides to strangle it. He grabs hold of its throat and squeezes as hard as he can. Somewhere in the middle of all this, he faints. His parents find him, pry his hands loose from the cat's throat, and carry him into the house. He has feverish nightmares about giant crayfish.
I wonder if writing down all these Bad Things helped the author overcome his anger? It's difficult to tell; I'm not sure, but I'm tempted to conclude that he was, if anything, even angrier when he'd finished. Maybe Jonathan's right. But it's interesting that someone tried the experiment.