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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Mémoire d’un lycéen de Quimper

by Jean Jaffré

A Breton’s Memories of French Writer Julien Gracq from his Grammar-School Days

Translated Wednesday 16 January 2008, by Isabelle Métral

News of Julien Gracq’s death last December is sure to mobilise for his posthumous celebration the exclusive circles of literary critics whose “bluff” he called in his insolent pamphlet “la Littérature à l’estomac” (published in 1949-1950), quite in line with his snubbing of the Prix Goncourt (a yearly prize that rewards the best realist fiction) for his “Rivage des Syrtes” (1951, “The Opposite Shore”). [1]

I am no literary critic myself, but I have read every book of his in their order of publication from the moment I realized for some obscure reason that hiding behind the public figure was M. Poirier, my history and geography teacher when I was a fourth-, then a fifth-former at the Quimper grammar-school in Brittany in the years 1937 and 1938.
It is difficult to forget that teacher: a black-suited figure wearing a white shirt under his jacket and waistcoat, with a black tie to match, in short a kind of Anglican gentleman, somewhat stiff, yet with only a shade of sternness. He would walk into the classroom without showing the least concern for the stand-up-sit-down ritual.

No one would have dared break the silence. The teacher sat at his desk on the platform, drew a small pile of notes out of the inside pocket of his jacket, put it down on the desk, then spoke uninterruptedly for the whole hour in a monotone, yet warm voice. No personal communication took place between the orator and the audience. The reason my memories are so vivid is that I found him really impressive. I sat on the first row conscientiously taking notes in an exercise book which I used for term exams.

That distant figure of a master, which was obviously composed so as to exempt him from any useless rite and sentimental connivance in the execution of his professional duties was suddenly challenged by another on one occasion – being as yet an innocent child, this came as a big surprise – when my father took me to an electoral meeting in a working class neighbourhood we seldom visited and there, sitting on a platform and clad in the same strict suit, was my history teacher introducing the communist candidate – a sure indication that he had an executive function in that party. The Popular Front was then on the crest of the wave; it mobilised crowds in our small county town. My dad always made a point of taking me with him to all the demonstrations. A primary school teacher and a trade-unionist, he placed vague hopes in a utopian society. And so it was that at a great dance organized by the teachers’ union which ended at midnight with a vibrant “Internationale” I spotted my history teacher sitting in a corner at a table next to a lady who taught at the grammar-school for girls. He was the only grammar-school teacher to come out on strike despite Prime Minister Daladier’s warning that strikers would be crossed off from the public payroll. I remember this all the more vividly as my father mentioned over the meal that he had found he had been almost the only one to answer the unions’ call in the whole city, to which my mother observed meekly that we could still depend on her salary. Then one day, as chance would have it, I was witness to a scene in our school where M. Trellu - who was to be my French teacher the year after – a real sportsman he was, and a good sailor, a far-right Action Française Catholic too, took M. Bouynot my fifth-form teacher to task for yielding to Daladier’s threats when M. Poirier, his colleague, he pointed out, had had the courage of his convictions. It is no accident that the scene remained imprinted on my memory, for it had no small influence on the course I was later to take.

After the war had been declared in September 1939, some teachers disappeared from the scene, being mobilized. I once happened to walk past two uniformed lieutenants in a street in Quimper who were chatting while taking a stroll. They were M. Poirier and M. Guéguen, the communist mayor of Concarneau and counsellor for the rural district, whom I knew for having met him with my father. From what they said I gathered that they had been fellow-students at the Ecole Normale, the Teachers’ Training Institute. I would have given anything to know what confidences they were now exchanging for the Stalin-Ribbentrop Pact had just been signed and M. Guéguen publicly condemned it - the collaborationist Vichy police arrested him all the same and he was shot at Châteaubriant with 26 other hostages in 1941. Meanwhile M. Poirier was held prisoner. I came upon him in 1943 walking down the Boulevard Saint-Michel near the Sorbonne in Paris: a few words and a handshake to encourage the student I was – he obviously did not want to stop any longer.

It was not until later on that I understood that M. Poirier and Julien Gracq were one and the same man. Reading his books I began to be puzzled by this enigmatic trinity - three persons in one, when I had known only two of them and found it difficult to piece the two of them together: unknown to us at the time, one of his books was already being published, Au Château d’Argol (1938, The Castle of Argol). He was said to be a formidable chess-player. Masks would not be the right word for this, nor would facets, nor parts, an actor’s parts…For as concerns the author’s part, in the institutional sense of the expression, he lashed at it in his pamphlet la Littérature à l’estomac (the bluffers), then held it up to ridicule by turning down the Goncourt Prize. Throughout his career as a writer, he remained a history and geography teacher right until the age of retirement.

Being averse to autobiographical confidences he disclosed only a few memories of his stay in Quimper, of the communist cell’s meetings at fishermen’s houses in Guilvinec: writing for the local paper was becoming a drag to him, the sketch in three lines of a colleague in whom I recognized my French teacher, M. Tellu, who went unnamed… Not one word about his comrade Guéguen who was shot at Chateaubriant while he himself was in a stalag in Germany.

As I read again a few pages from Un beau ténébreux (A man with dark, brooding good looks) years later, what held me under a spell was the never-ceasing, constantly rebounding description of the sea along the arc of the beach. Long sentences flow on as segments overlap in the reader’s memory like the movement of the swell itself, beating the coast and rising into foamy waves that dash against the edge of the beach, then ebb away in rivulets that the sand sucks in through all its pores. On this obstinately repeated sight I have gazed and gazed in fascination ever since my far-off childhood years on the vast beach of my holidays in Brittany.

[1Jean Jaffré holds an advanced teaching degree in classic literature.


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