Skip to content

The Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle – 1

August 14, 2014
Robert Merle - 1985

Robert Merle – 1985

(Note: About ten years ago, – actually I forget, was it 5 years ago, 10 years ago? I am not sure – I had a brief conversation with an old friend and companero named John Buttney, The name might not resonate among many, but for those who were in Colorado, specifically Boulder, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it should ring a bell. He was one of the leaders of the student anti-war movement on the University of Colorado campus, a place from which he related, he was “banned for life.” We were talking about the intellectual influences that led us leftward politically, and were surprised to find that we had both been influenced by French thinkers. Buttney, a philosophy grad student, spoke of the impact of Merlo Ponti; for me it was, oddly enough, a French professor who taught me, of all things, about Robert Frost’s poetry who I failed to name. He is Robert Merle. I realize that most of you don’t know much – or anything – about Robert Merle. Your loss, frankly… Suggest you check out a copy of “Day of the Dolphin” from Netflix or Weekend à Zuydcoote [about the Dunkirk evacuation – kind of a French Catch 22] with Jean Paul Belmondo. I’ll be writing more about him [Merle] over the course of the coming year)


Having spent almost all of my adult life in academia, I have met a series of very fine teachers, professors and as I sit here thinking of them, a flood of names and faces comes to mind. But there were few, precious few, of what I would call truly great ones, a high school history teacher, Mr. Rhodes, my freshman English teacher, Mr. Hasham at St. Lawrence University, two professors of Anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, David Green and Gordon Hewes, and a colleague at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies all belong to that category. They had vastly different teaching styles, subject matter, politics but they all had encyclopedic knowledge of their fields, the ability to place the subject matter within a broader context. More importantly, they had learned the fine art of stimulating a passion for learning in their students.

I was both challenged and humbled intellectually by having studied with them.

But to my mind there is one who rises even above these, Robert Merle. No one comes close. Hardly known here in the United States today, his work is highly appreciated and well-known in France. Ours was not a long connection. If I remember correctly, he gave a series of lectures that went only over a few months  after which he disappeared from Rouen. But by the time of our parting of the ways, he had left an indelible mark on me, and I would venture to guess on others with whom I shared an unforgettable year.

I intend to spend a good part of this next year reading as much of Merle as I can, both to honor his memory and to mark a personal landmark. Half a century after having sat in a Mont Saint Aignon classroom at the University of Rouen’s Faculté des Lettres I recall his lectures. It was the fall of 1964 and I was participating in St. Lawrence University’s “junior year abroad program” there. Merle taught a whole course on the poetry of Robert Frost. Prior to the class’s beginning I admit to having had my doubts. A Frenchman was going to teach us about an American poet? Add to this, that to be frank, I wasn’t  interested in poetry in general nor Robert Frost in particular. I had read some Frost, and with the exception of some of his better known poems, found his poetry hard to understand. There seemed to be messages that I could not make out in those little verbal puzzles nor was I willing to expend the mental energy to unlock their meaning. What was a Frenchman going to teach a class full of native English (admittedly American English speakers) about poetry in our, not his language? It just didn’t have a particularly interesting ring to it. I was not looking forward to it at all.

That cynicism melted with the first lecture.

The course was extraordinary, breathtaking, really. From that first day, Merle’s understanding, control and frankly love of the English language startled me. Yet he could relate the technical and emotional complexity of Frost’s work in a very down-to-earth manner that even I could grasp. Merle’s deep intellectual love was language. In fact, it was two languages, both of which he had mastered, his native French and English. He combined a technical/grammatical expertise of both with their historical dimension. Although I had studied some poetry both in high school and college, I had never before heard such a thorough and profound technical and ideational deconstruction of poetry as Merle’s analysis of Frost’s poems. Nor have I since. Merle opened my eyes, not just to Robert Frost, but to the wonders of poetry in general. If I repeatedly come back to my old, well-worn paperback book of Frost’s poems year after year, the credit goes to Merle. I don’t just read Frost’s poems; I study them, noting the choice of words, how they are put together, their emotional and deeper “message.” Robert Merle loved Frost and was able to share his deep appreciation of the New England master with his students. Merle understood Frost’s use of language, how it played out on both a surface and a deeper level.

Profound understanding combined with an ability to explain, to share his insights with others! Without realizing it at the time, in the broader sense, in the manner in which he taught that class on Robert Frost, Robert Merle became the model – no one else ever came close – to what I have, my whole life of nearly half a century of teaching – of what I would aspire to – and rarely achieve – as a teacher. Thinking back upon it, listening to Robert Merle in the late fall of 1964 and marveling at each lecture, each one so precious, nurtured my own interest in teaching. How else can I explain why it is that over the years, I have repeatedly returned not only to Robert Frost, but to the life work of Robert Merle. I continue to do so.

Robert Merle has a long and productive life. In 2008 one of his sons, Pierre Merle published a detailed biography of his father, entitled Robert Merle: Une vie de passions (Editions de l’Aube, 2008; republished by De Fallois, 2013). The book is organized around a question: how is it that a young French boy, running through the streets of Algiers, became a writer? The different stages of his life are explained, analyzed including the impact of having been a prisoner of war in Germany, his political engagements, affairs. I have ordered the book and will, over the course of this year, read it. This essay thus, is more of a sketch, an appreciation than an in-depth analysis fo Merle’s work. While I enjoy reading him in French, how I wish that more of his work had been translated into English and other languages because I believe his writing would have broad appeal beyond his francophone readership.

Robert Merle was born in Tebessa, eastern Algeria near the Tunisian border on August 28, 1908; he lived to be 95, dying in 2004 at Grosrouvre, Yvelines, France west of Paris. His father, Félix Merle, also an Algerian-born Frenchman, contracted typhus as a part of the French military involved in failed Allied effort to seize Gallipoli, in the Dardanelles in 1915. He was repatriated to Marseilles to recover. Son Robert completed both his high school (“lycée” in French) and university studies in Paris. Robert Merle graduated at the top his university class with a doctorate in Philosophy with a specialization in English. His doctoral thesis was an analysis of Oscar Wilde’s letters. Merle would continue to study and write about Wilde later. Soon after graduating with this doctorate he began a career in academia first at the high school, but soon thereafter at the university level. Merle taught high school in Bordeaux and Marseilles before receiving an appointment at Neuilly-sur-Seine, just outside Paris. At Neuilly he made the acquaintance of Jean Paul Sartre, who would influence his thinking and writing.

Just before the outbreak of World War Two in Europe, in 1939, Merle was drafted into the French army; because of his English language proficiency, he was made a liaison officer with the British Army in France. As such, Merle was caught up in the Dunkerque retreat; failing to find a place on a ship to Britian, he was captured by the invading Nazi military. He was imprisoned in Germany where he remained until his release in 1943. Almost immediately he went back to teaching, first at the University of Rennes, then at Toulouse, Caen, Rouen, Algiers and finally Nanterre. Merle was teaching at Nanterre, just outside Paris in May, 1968 when the great student revolt of that year broke out. Merle’s politics were always left of center. He is described as being rather close (très proche) to the French Communist Party but distanced himself from it after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which he opposed.

Merle was a prolific writer. His main claim to fame in France is the 13 volume Fortune de France, a series of historical novels detailing French history in the stormy period between 1547 and 1661. This is the century of the religious wars between the country’s rising Protestant population and its entrenched Catholic hierarchy, a stormy, violent period in the country’s history. Although fiction, the series is acknowledged to be historically accurate, including his use of the French language of the day. Merle’s writing also includes 11 additional novels, a memoire of his days in captivity under the Nazis, and several plays. His interests spanned the human experience of his time from his interviews with Algerian rebel leader Ahmed Ben Bella to a post-nuclear war novel to an analysis of Oscar Wilde. His interests seemed to have no boundaries, as long as it dealt with some aspect of what might be called “the human experience” both historically and during the current period that Merle lived through. .

These novels span the extent of the twentieth century. Several of his novels were turned into films, among them Weekend à Zuydcoote (1949 -for which he won the prestigious Prix Goncourt). One of the better gendre of “anti-war, war novels” the movie starred the famous French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. A second novel, Un animal doué de raison (1967 – An animal capable of reason) concerns attempts of a U.S. intelligence agency, very likely the C.I.A., trying to find a way to train dolphins to essentially be suicide bombers. It was made into a film in the United States entitled “Day of the Dolphin” starring a “pre-Patton” George C. Scott, Merle’s unique (to my knowledge) entry into the American “mass culture” scene. Malevil (1972) is about a group living in a French château who have survived nuclear war. It too was made into a movie La Mort est mon métier (1952 – Death is my Profession) is a historical novel inspired by the life of Rudolf Höess, Auschwitz commandant; it was also made into a film by Theodor Kotulla “Aus einem deutschen Leben” in 1977)..

By the way, my order of “Fortune de France” – first of the 13 volume series – is in the mail.

to be continued…



Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 1

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 2: Ben Bella

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 4 – Fortune de France Translated into English

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 5 – City of Wisdom and Blood

Rouen Chronicles: Amsterdam 1965

Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe

Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe 2 – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part One

Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe 2 – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part Two

Rouen Chronicles: Ferid Boughedir

Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe Trumble permalink
    August 18, 2014 2:51 pm

    Hi Rob, Thanks for the post. I will have to see if I can find any of his books. He sounds fascinating. I hope you are well. I haven’t heard anything from the poker group since last holiday party. Do we still gather at the orphanage? I enjoy reading your blog. Interesting the “alliances” Israel has been able to form for the war.

    • August 19, 2014 7:36 am

      We’ve met a few times…not this month…i’ll make sure that chris gets your email…yeah, will be good to see you. as for the stuff to read…see if you can find “the day of the dolphin” it’s in english..also there is a good film available from netflix


  1. Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 2 – on Algerian Political Figure Ahmed Ben Bella. | Rob Prince's Blog
  2. The Rouen Chronicles – Ferid Boughedir |
  3. The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 4 – “Fortunes de France” Translated Into English |
  4. Rouen Chronicles: Amsterdam – 1965 |
  5. The Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos |
  6. The Rouen Chronicles – Rouen’s Jewish Heritage |
  7. The Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe |
  8. Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 5: City of Wisdom and Blood |
  9. Robert Merle: Notes on Jan 10, 2016 Talk on “Fortunes de France” – Part One; Westside Books, |
  10. The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe – 2 The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part One |
  11. The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe-2-the-botched-dieppe-raid-of-august-17-1942-in-two-parts-part-two/ |
  12. Rouen Chronicles: The Literary Work of Robert Merle – In Two Sessions – Notes |
  13. The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 3 – Robert Merle in October, 1964 – |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: