Four famous fully-engaged French writers

| April 12, 2012 | 0 Comments

 

Emile Zola in 1902

Emile Zola in 1902

Writer/activists are coming back into fashion. It’s time to revisit their French ancestors.
When I was about 15, I stumbled on a book no one else seemed to have checked out of the public library in decades: Emile Zola, Novelist and Reformer: An Account of his Life and Work. It was published in 1904, a couple of years after the French novelist’s tragic end. (He died at his writing desk after accidentally kicking open an unlighted gas jet, as depicted by Paul Muni in the last scene of The Life of Emile Zola, a once-famous Hollywood film.)
The book I pulled from the stacks turned out to be straightforward to the point of being simple-minded but it had the advantage of having been written by someone who had known the subject personally: Edward Vizetelly, who like his father before him had been Zola’s English translator and publisher. Vizetelly once went to prison for publishing a translation of one of Zola’s novels, which were widely held in the late 19th Century to be as risqué as they were popular, particularly the one entitled Nana, which scandalized our great-grandmothers and titillated our great-grandfathers. In 1898, when Zola himself was sentenced to jail by a French court for his role in the Dreyfus Affair, he fled to England where Vizetelly helped him hide.
I admired Zola mostly for his role as a writer-citizen who dived right in to issues of the day, most notably l’affaire Dreyfus. At his best, he was a tough-minded and honest critic of French society, yet also a person of great humanity and compassion. He was, as the French say, an engagé writer: one whose desire to change political or social conditions is a big part of his writing, and vice versa. As we are beginning to see another wave of such people today, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to look back on a few of the famous French ones of the past. Not Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir or Albert Camus, but some others who show the whole range of what it meant to be engagé as a writer.
After putting up with years of accusations and public abuse, Zola was honoured with a state funeral. To understand this posthumous honour one has to recall Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army and a Jew, who had been drummed out of the military on a phoney espionage charge that was actually, as Zola and others proved, an anti-Semitic frame-up. This incredibly intricate tale begins in 1894 when French army intelligence intercepted a memo about military secrets sent to the German military attaché in Paris by an unnamed French officer. One of the first in a series of handwriting experts, who was also a vicious anti-Semite, concluded that the author was Dreyfus, who thus found himself in a cell awaiting court martial. Bolstered by secret files given them by the war minister, the judges condemned him to Devil’s Island, the dreaded penal colony camp in French Guiana on the northeastern coast of South America.

Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus

Dreyfus’s family lobbied for another investigation, and new evidence was found that seemed to point to a French officer named Esterhazy who was later tried and acquitted. But that was countered by still other documents (forged, as it happened) that swung suspicion back to Dreyfus. The first pamphlet in defence of the prisoner was by a young Jewish intellectual in 1896, by which time the scandal had animated the newspapers, consumed the army and imperilled the Third Republic. As the whole ugly business spun out of control, it produced a mysterious woman in a veil, a duel, numerous ruined careers (and the start of others), and at least one suicide.
Zola had been a famous public figure for years because of his 20-volume roman fleuve published under the general title Les Rougon-Macquart, one of the great milestones of naturalism. He was busy with other causes and pursuits. But when he did jump into the Dreyfus case, in November 1897, his articles in Le Figaro and elsewhere galvanized the public. The turning point was an article (later a separate pamphlet), “J’accuse,” published in 1898. Within weeks, three handwriting experts sued him for libel. In short order he was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, though the verdict was overturned on appeal. Whereupon he was tried on the far more serious charge of criminal libel. Once found guilty, Zola decided that a visit to Britain would be timely.
The author returned to France in 1899, two days after Dreyfus was shipped home from South America for a new trial. Poor Dreyfus was found guilty again. This time, however, he was sentenced to only 10 years. The French president, hoping to put an end to the whole business, soon pardoned him; later, the verdict was overturned. Over the next few years, Dreyfus, who lived until 1935, was reinstated, promoted, compensated and awarded the Légion d’honneur on the same spot where he had had his epaulets torn off in disgrace. Yet in the same period there was an attempt to assassinate him, as simply exposing the current of anti-Semitism in French life had, of course, done nothing to eliminate it. It is also interesting to remember that Zola went to England at about the same time Oscar Wilde relocated in France, for the two countries, rather like Canada and the U.S., have a long history of taking in each other’s exiles.
Wilde was a friend of André Gide, the French novelist and littérateur who became sufficiently old and respectable to receive the Nobel Prize. I, for one, had not thought much about this in years until I came upon a mildly startling sentence in Jason Epstein’s memoir and polemic, Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future. The sentence comes where Mr. Epstein is paying tribute to Bennett Cerf, Horace Liveright and other New York publishing pioneers of the 1920s who “introduced the literature of modernism to American readers by risking their fortunes and their destiny on Faulkner and Joyce, Proust, Gide, Lawrence, Stein, Stevens, and Pound.…” Was there really a time when Gide (1869-1951) seemed so dangerously avant-garde a writer as to be a big gamble? Of course there was. But he dropped off the roster long ago, and it is interesting to speculate why.
For one thing, he was the oldest of the lot. Even Proust was younger. Yet Gide acquired a large international audience rather late in his life and was 78 when he got the Nobel Prize, which left him frozen in time as an ancient and impossibly distinguished figure. For the English-language audience, there is also the matter of translations. Although new biographies come out every now and then — the most recent was Alan Sheridan’s André Gide, A Life in the Present (1999) — the key works are translated comparatively seldom, as is true of most such authors. Relatively new translations of his very short novel The Immoralist come along now and then, but If It Die, his autobiography, was last translated into English in 1935.
Stylistically, If It Die is a book solidly in the Puritan tradition, reminding us that Gide was almost as famous a Protestant in Catholic France as his contemporary and opposite number G.K. Chesterton was a Catholic in Protestant England. Traces of cleverness in If It Die are so few that they stand out in bold relief (“Every Swiss carries his glaciers inside him”). At times the book reads like one of those lesser novels of Daniel Defoe from his late long-winded period. The narrative ends in the 1890s with Gide’s Algerian exile, his relationship with Oscar Wilde and his determination to marry his cousin, Madeleine Rondeaux, who “was the only light left me by which to guide my life.”
That seems a curious place to stop, because his existence was just about to turn dramatically. Madeleine left him in horror on discovering his homosexuality, and he dealt with her leaving by telling the whole story in The Immoralist, in which he calls her Marceline (whereas in the autobiography she is Emmanuélle). This first novel, which he paid to have published in an edition of 300 copies, is now recognized as a little masterwork of straight autobiographical fiction, though it was not considered a success at the time. It led him to intense productivity as a novelist and as the founder and editor of France’s most influential literary journal, La Nouvelle Revue Française. This, his most energized period, interrupted only by the First World War, ended in 1924 when his novel Corydon created a scandal with its homosexual content, causing him to liquidate his property and go to the Congo. No doubt somebody somewhere has written a comparative study of the Congo as a place of refuge and menace in Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and André Gide.)
In colonial Africa, Gide began thinking seriously about left-wing politics, but by the time of his autobiography he had been to and denounced the Soviet Union, so that he was alienated from both the right and the left. His response was to withdraw from politics of any type. During the Second World War, he set what he believed was a good example for writers everywhere by refusing to be a part of current events one way or another, living quietly in the South of France.
Although his external life was often dramatic and indeed melodramatic, his personality was chilly and reserved. Living on to a great age and reaching enormous eminence seemed to instil the impression of someone who was hyper-dignified and with good reason. Like Zola, he was a critic of the French legal system, though justice and not injustice is what interested him.

Jean Cocteau in 1923

Jean Cocteau in 1923

He especially liked to observe the mechanics of the courts. Other busy people might scheme and fib to get out of jury duty, but Gide plotted and pleaded to be chosen. He once wrote a memoir of happenings he witnessed in the Assize Court, which under the French system is the top-level criminal court and the only one involving jurors from the community.
Gide served on juries so often that he acquired stature within the system, as when his fellow jurors instantly chose him to be their foreman. “As the only intellectuel, more or less, I feared hostility, despite the great effort I made to prevent it. I was quite touched by this sign of esteem.” Whether in Paris or on the road, he collected and carefully filed great numbers of press clippings about individual crimes. They were, of course, research material for his fiction.
Neither Zola nor Gide was in the least like Jean Cocteau, who was born in 1889, the same year as that other Parisian landmark, the Tour Eiffel, and who enjoyed a good long run. Mordecai Richler wrote of meeting him at a party in the 1950s, for example. By then, to judge from his published diaries from that decade, he was tired and, no doubt, depressed. One entry reads: “Wednesday, I’ll leave France, happy to be at sea. Our France of 1953 is like a little ‘literary’ café, filled with smoke, pretentiousness, and stupidity.” Another entry from the same year states that “America has nothing to look forward to but ruin. Now it’s Brazil’s turn (and Canada’s).” His heyday was in the 1920s, his own 30s, when he dazzled Europe with the spectacle of his genius, like — it seems to us now — some weird Gallic combination of Orson Welles, Noel Coward and Leonard Cohen.
He was bourgeois by origin and aristocratic by accent. He called his family “too artistic for me to be able to rebel against them, and not artistic enough to give me useful advice.” His father was a failed homme d’affaires who committed suicide, his mother a constant booster of her remarkable son’s career. When Cocteau was 18, for example, she arranged for one of the most famous actors of the day to give a public reading of her son’s poetry. That was a ticket to success. From that point forward, he met everybody who was important.

Malraux’s enthusiasm for flight, combined with his love of art and his weakness for pretend archaeology, sent him searching for the ruins of Marib, the ancient capital of Sheba, pictured here.

Malraux’s enthusiasm for flight, combined with his love of art and his weakness for pretend archaeology, sent him searching for the ruins of Marib, the ancient capital of Sheba, pictured here.

By the time of the Great War, in which he drove a field ambulance, Cocteau was a friend of the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the composer Erik Satie and nearly all the other leaders of the avant-garde. Typically, he once wrote the libretto for a work for which Satie wrote the score and Picasso, another lifelong friend, designed the sets. Although his main means of expression were poetry and fiction — he operated quite a literary factory — he also became a visual artist (though only infrequently a painter), a choreographer, a composer, a musician, an actor, a singer, a designer, even a maker of masks — and much else besides. In short, he felt he could add to his own catalogue of talents anything on which someone he admired concentrated, and, what’s more, tried to hold all the elements together by force of his style and personality.
One would suppose from reading the relevant memoirs and such that most everyone who met Cocteau was attracted to him or, at the very least, liked him: I sense that he was the Anti-Dreyfus. No less unworldly a person than Jacques Maritain, the great neo-Thomist philosopher and theologian, tried to help Cocteau kick his opium habit (unsuccessfully, for Cocteau spent the rest of his life striking the gong). The artist had a wonderfully open and triangular face that didn’t change shape, or even expression, as he aged. No wonder so many of the great painters, such Dufy, Modigliani, Picasso, Picabia and Rivera, painted portraits of him.
Cocteau was a magnet for photographers such as Man Ray, Irving Penn and Cecil Beaton, though one of the most famous images is by Philippe Halsman. It shows Cocteau, Shiva-like, with six hands: one holding a book, another a pen, a third smoking a cigarette, and so on. This is comment on his range of talents, of course, but it is also one of the many studies of his admirably beautiful fingers: long, slender and graceful. The critic Dominique Paini has pointed out that unposed photographs of Cocteau are rare. Even a shot of him on his deathbed in 1963 looks artfully arranged (and bears an eerie similarity to Cocteau’s drawing of his backstage mother in her own last hours). One of the few candid photos shows him leaving the inquiry where he was acquitted of having collaborated with the Nazis simply because he refused to let them chase him out of Paris but stayed on throughout the occupation, working, keeping his elegant head down, in somewhat the same manner as Gide.

André Malraux

André Malraux

In the delicate postwar period, Cocteau showed himself a master of public relations, as distinct from mere publicity. He had to. Near the end of his life he was made one of the Forty Immortals of the Académie française. Typically for Cocteau, he was photographed fencing with the ceremonial sword that is part of the Prisoner of Zenda-like uniform worn by members. That, no doubt, deflected some of the accusations that he was taking his eminence too seriously.
Yet however likable he was personally, Cocteau suffered a great deal of professional criticism in his life. It is easy to see why: He could do too many things well. Dominique Paini remarked of him that “his insufficiencies seemed confirmed by the fact that he had a finger in every pie.” Whether much criticism was inspired by envy or aesthetic differences, the question brings us round to the matter of his standing today.
Writing of Cocteau more than a decade ago, a Paris correspondent of the Economist told readers that “few people have a bad word to say about him any more.” Yet still they write about him, just as they write of André Malraux, a differently engagé figure who was also one of the great mythomanes of the 20th Century — a fact that was at the very heart of his life as a novelist.
Years ago, Janet Flanner, the long-time Paris correspondent of the New Yorker, began a profile of Malraux by describing his talent as a brilliant rapid-fire talker (rather than conversationalist). She recounted one of his prolonged outbursts of allusion and ideas on a street corner. Moments later, still talking, he jumped into the back of a taxi without stopping for breath. As the cab pulled away, he was heard carrying on, not pausing to acknowledge that his previous interlocutor had now been replaced by the driver: “In ancient Persia…,” he was saying.
As a teenager, Malraux used his apparent brilliance to ingratiate himself to established Parisian literary figures such as André Breton and Max Jacob. Before he even reached his majority, he had set himself up as a publisher of expensive limited editions, including erotica. By 1922, when he was 21, he was a regular reviewer for the Nouvelle Revue Française — the famously influential NRF. He existed, one of his numerous biographers had written, in “a fairy-tale world of forced ingenuity.” By then he had married an adventurous young woman with money (which he soon lost). In 1923, to recoup his fortunes, he went to Cambodia, where he experienced his first and greatest scandal.
Malraux had earned a little money in the art galleries and auction rooms of Paris, as a commission-based go-between linking artists and collectors. Now he resolved to become his own supplier. He knew that a certain type of statuette of a Buddhist apsara [a celestial nymph], for example, could bring the equivalent of US$12,000 in New York. So he and a colleague, posing as serious archaeologists, went to the ruins of Banteay Srei, northeast of the temples at Angkor, and pried loose seven sandstone bas-reliefs.
French intelligence agencies were already on to Malraux (just as British and American ones would be in subsequent years). He was arrested, tried and sentenced to three years. Back in Europe, his wife orchestrated a campaign of getting leading intellectual figures to petition for his release. Surprisingly, the effort was successful. A couple of years later, Malraux returned to the colonies to start a pro-independence newspaper called L’Indochine, which the French authorities closed down. Out of his temple-robbing experiences came his novel La voie royale (1930).
What happened next is that Malraux entered a period of mysterious activity in China, out of which came the other truly important novel in his oeuvre, La condition humaine, usually known in English as Man’s Fate (1933). When the American critic Edmund Wilson once pressed him for details of his life, Malraux replied: “I went to Asia at 23, as leader of an archaeological project. Then I abandoned archaeology, organized the Young Annam movement, then became commissar in the Kuomintang in Indochina and eventually in Canton.” None of this is quite accurate. But then, in fairness, he did also admit to Mr. Wilson that “the role of objectivity in my books is not placed in the foreground.”
He wanted to be at the centre of events as well as ideas and, moreover, to erase the distinction. In 1934, a Trotskyite now, he was in the Soviet Union (where Sergei Eisenstein pondered making a feature film of La condition humaine). Another never-realized project was collaborating with Maxim Gorky on an encyclopedia. “Not a battleship of an encyclopedia, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” Malraux explained, “but a submarine of an encyclopedia.” Instead, he went to Africa. French intelligence picked up his scent again, sending out warnings that he was in Djibouti and was, in some unspecified way, up to no good.
Malraux had become interested in aviation, for the first decade after Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic was a time when aviators were seen as romantic adventurers; ones as different as Albert Camus, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Amelia Earhart became public heroes. His enthusiasm for flight, combined with his love of art and his weakness for pretend archaeology, sent him searching for the ruins of Marib, the ancient capital of Sheba and the royal seat of its monarch, the Queen of Sheba, who is mentioned in both the Bible and the Qur’an. Many believe that he hoped an important archaeological discovery in that part of the world would heal the wound of his failure in Cambodia. His plan was to take aerial photographs of the ruins he expected to be discernible as straight lines crosshatching a patch of Arabian desert. Such images would be valuable instruments of publicity and profit.
That there once indeed was an important city called Marib, about 140 miles [225 kilometres] from the Gulf of Aden on the trade route to India, seemed clear enough. Its most notable feature was said to be a huge dam that was thought to have been one of the great engineering projects of its day, which was the 6th Century BCE (but whose collapse in the 6th Century CE wrought a terrible flood on the region). The existence of Sheba’s monarch was a murkier question.
The region was called Sheba (the Hebrew spelling of Saba — residents of Sheba were called Sabeans) after a person of the same name who is variously identified in the Bible as a descendant of Noah or Abraham. The Queen of Sheba, called Bilqis by Muslims, is known almost entirely for her calling on Solomon after hearing of his wisdom. In Arabic lore, the two married and their son became Ethiopia’s first king, from whom all later ones descended. This is significant because Ethiopia was near the forefront of public consciousness in the mid 1930s, immediately before, during and after Mussolini invaded it with the intention of establishing an Italian empire. In any event, Malraux photographed the ruins of something, in more or less the place where Marib should once have been, but experts dismissed his claims out of hand. His capers were much more successful in wartime.

Claude Lorrain’s painting of the Queen of Sheba disembarking.

Claude Lorrain’s painting of the Queen of Sheba disembarking.

When Francisco Franco led the Spanish army in revolt against the elected government in Madrid, igniting what was soon known as the Spanish Civil War, Malraux was among the many thousands of anti-Fascists around the world, ranging from mildly liberal democrats to dedicated communists, who rushed to the anti-Franco cause. His role was to organize the purchase of warplanes and recruit both volunteer and mercenary pilots to fly them under his command. This despite the fact that he had never fired a weapon before, much less piloted a plane.
The events in Spain are now usually seen as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War, which followed almost immediately. Malraux, back in France, joined the Résistance and served usefully and bravely, helping to harry and harass the Nazi occupiers, while also, in the words of one chronicler, acting like “an energetic door-to-door salesman of himself.” Near the end of the war, he incurred a wound, which he listed in the official record as three wounds, and was taken prisoner by the Germans, only to be freed when the Allies swept in.
But the most significant event that befell him during the war was meeting Charles de Gaulle. The dashing dark-haired novelist and the leader of the Free French forces took to each other. What de Gaulle liked in Malraux is less important than what Malraux admired in de Gaulle. As one critic phrased it, “The novelist sees, standing and sitting amiably before him, behind his little mustache, an unquestionable Great Man of history and legend.” For indeed anyone who wishes to be considered a Great Man himself must first of all believe in this simplistic concept. But then, as former French President Jacques Chirac, once said, “In every civilization, leaders have a fool. It relaxes them….”
In the first year after the war, Malraux was information minister in de Gaulle’s provisional government. When de Gaulle became president of the new Fifth Republic in 1958, he asked Malraux to take on the cultural affairs portfolio. To say that Malraux threw himself into the task is wholly inadequate. He turned everything upside down, starting new museums, reinventing old ones, undertaking a national inventory of art works, cutting down on the number of hideous public statues, sending the Mona Lisa on a visit to the New World and saying, “It seems to me vital that culture should cease to be the privilege of people who are lucky enough to live in Paris or to be rich.” He was a special favourite of Jacqueline Kennedy, which made him a public figure in the U.S. During this period, he also turned his attention to a series of lavish art books, of which Museum without Walls is the best known — books Chirac says are without “scientific rigour” but show nonetheless that “nobody spoke better than he about fetishes” — that is, about primitive carvings.
In brief, Malraux went on being his highly charged, brilliant and charismatic self. He was old now, and addicted to amphetamines and opiates. And there were other flaws. When visitors tried to secure appointments to see Malraux, they would sometimes be told that the minister was indisposed with a recurrence of his old malaria. The phrase was code for his being drunk as a monkey. Through it all he remained the wonderful and unstoppable talker, the presenter of a lifelong monologue that, as François Mauriac, speaking with the authority of a Nobel laureate, said, “puts too much trust in our stupidity.”
In 1967, Malraux published his memoirs, which he straightforwardly entitled Antimémoires, for he was at no pains to disguise the fact that they mixed fiction and non-fiction. Such was his method as a novelist. Why should he act differently when writing autobiography? Twenty years after his demise, his ashes were transferred to the Panthéon to rest with the remains of the great French heroes down through the centuries. The Economist used the occasion to pronounce that the long-serving bad boy of French culture had grown harmless since his death.

George Fetherling’s most recent book is Plans Deranged by Time (Wilfrid Laurier University Press).

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