Book of the Week: A Twitch upon the Thread

15 Apr

Fishing from a boat by Winslow Homer, 1874.

Indie publisher Notting Hill Editions has produced a lovely little anthology of writing on the idle pleasure of fishing. Edited by Jon Day, Twitch upon the Thread features angling thoughts from Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Robert Burton and Jerome K Jerome, among others. We’ve selected a heartwarming fishing story by the nineteenth-century French writer, Guy de Maupassant.

Besieged Paris was in the throes of famine. Even the sparrows on the roofs and the rats in the sewers were growing scarce. People were eating anything they could get.

As Monsieur Morissot, watchmaker by profession and idler for the nonce, was strolling along the boulevard one bright January morning, his hands in his trousers pockets and stomach empty, he suddenly came face to face with an acquaintance – Monsieur Sauvage, a fishing chum.

Before the war broke out Morissot had been in the habit, every Sunday morning, of setting forth with a bamboo rod in his hand and a tin box on his back. He took the Argenteuil train, got out at Colombes, and walked thence to the Ile Marante. The moment he arrived at this place of his dreams he began fishing, and fished till nightfall.

Every Sunday he met in this very spot Monsieur Sauvage, a stout, jolly, little man, a draper in the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette, and also an ardent fisher- man. They often spent half the day side by side, rod in hand and feet dangling over the water, and a warm friendship had sprung up between the two. Some days they did not speak; at other times they chatted; but they understood each other perfectly without the aid of words, having similar tastes and feelings.

In the spring, about ten o’clock in the morning, when the early sun caused a light mist to float on the water and gently warmed the backs of the two enthusiastic anglers, Morissot would occasionally remark to his neighbour:

‘My, but it’s pleasant here.’

To which the other would reply:

‘I can’t imagine anything better!’

And these few words sufficed to make them understand and appreciate each other.

In the autumn, toward the close of day, when the setting sun shed a blood-red glow over the western sky, and the reflection of the crimson clouds tinged the whole river with red, brought a glow to the faces of the two friends, and gilded the trees, whose leaves were already turning at the first chill touch of winter, Monsieur Sauvage would sometimes smile at Morissot, and say:

‘What a glorious spectacle!’

And Morissot would answer, without taking his eyes from his float:

‘This is much better than the boulevard, isn’t it?’

As soon as they recognized each other they shook hands cordially, affected at the thought of meeting under such changed circumstances. Monsieur Sauvage, with a sigh, murmured:

‘These are sad times!’

Morissot shook his head mournfully.

‘And such weather! This is the first fine day of the year.’

The sky was, in fact, of a bright, cloudless blue. They walked along, side by side, reflective and sad.

‘And to think of the fishing!’ said Morissot. ‘What good times we used to have!’

‘When shall we be able to fish again?’ asked Monsieur Sauvage.

They entered a small café and took an absinthe together, then resumed their walk along the pavement.

Morissot stopped suddenly. ‘Shall we have another absinthe?’ he said.

‘If you like,’ agreed Monsieur Sauvage.

And they entered another wine shop.

They were quite unsteady when they came out, owing to the effect of the alcohol on their empty stomachs. It was a fine, mild day, and a gentle breeze fanned their faces. The fresh air completed the effect of the alcohol on Monsieur Sauvage. He stopped suddenly, saying:

‘Suppose we go there?’



‘But where?’

‘Why, to the old place. The French outposts are close to Colombes. I know Colonel Dumoulin, and we shall easily get leave to pass.’

Morissot trembled with desire.
‘Very well. I agree.’

And they separated, to fetch their rods and lines.

An hour later they were walking side by side on the highroad. Presently they reached the villa occupied by the colonel. He smiled at their request, and granted it. They resumed their walk, furnished with a password. Soon they left the outposts behind them, made their way through deserted Colombes, and found themselves on the outskirts of the small vineyards which border the Seine. It was about eleven o’clock.

Before them lay the village of Argenteuil, apparently lifeless. The heights of Orgement and Sannois dominated the landscape. The great plain, extending as far as Nanterre, was empty, quite empty – a waste of dun-coloured soil and bare cherry trees.

Monsieur Sauvage, pointing to the heights, murmured:

‘The Prussians are up yonder!’

And the sight of the deserted country filled the two friends with vague misgivings.

The Prussians! They had never seen them as yet, but they had felt their presence in the neighbourhood of Paris for months past – ruining France, pillaging, massacring, starving them. And a kind of superstitious terror mingled with the hatred they already felt toward this unknown, victorious nation.

‘Suppose we were to meet any of them?’ said Morissot.

‘We’d offer them some fish,’ replied Monsieur Sauvage, with that Parisian light-heartedness which nothing can wholly quench.

Still, they hesitated to show themselves in the open country, overawed by the utter silence which reigned around them.

At last Monsieur Sauvage said boldly:
‘Come, we’ll make a start; only let us be careful!’

And they made their way through one of the vineyards, bent double, creeping along beneath the cover afforded by the vines, with eye and ear alert.

A strip of bare ground remained to be crossed before they could gain the river bank. They ran across this, and, as soon as they were at the water’s edge, concealed themselves among the dry reeds. Morissot placed his ear to the ground, to ascertain, if possible, whether footsteps were coming their way. He heard nothing. They seemed to be utterly alone. Their confidence was restored, and they began to fish.

Before them the deserted Ile Marante hid them from the farther shore. The little restaurant was closed, and looked as if it had been deserted for years.

Monsieur Sauvage caught the first gudgeon, Monsieur Morissot the second, and almost every moment one or other raised his line with a little, glittering, silvery fish wriggling at the end; they were having excellent sport.

They slipped their catch gently into a close-meshed bag lying at their feet; they were filled with joy – the joy of once more indulging in a pastime of which they had long been deprived.

The sun poured its rays on their backs; they no longer heard anything or thought of anything. They ignored the rest of the world; they were fishing.

Extract from A Twitch upon the Thread: Writers on Fishing (Notting Hill Editions). Buy a copy here.