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The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 3 – Robert Merle in October, 1964 –

October 1, 2014
Double volume, Volumes 1 and 2 of Fortune de France by Robert Merle

Double volume, Volumes 1 and 2 of Fortune de France by Robert Merle

(Note: It was in October 1964 at the Faculte des Lettres of the University of Rouen that along with some 25 other “junior year abroad” students from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York), that I stepped into a classroom to listen to Professor Robert Merle lecture, on of all, things, the poetry of Robert Frost. A half century later, I still have the notes from Merle’s lectures and whenever I read Frost, which I do quite frequently, I think of Merle, who opened my eyes and heart to the New England poet, whom it turns out, also spent a year or so as a student at St. Lawrence University.)

By the fall of 1964 Robert Merle was in the full prime of his academic career although, despite having published a number of fascinating fiction works, and having 15 years prior emerged as a national literary figure, he had yet to find his voice as an author. That would come later. A full professor of English and American Literature, associated with the University of Rouen, Merle was already a major French cultural figure, having won the Prix Goncourt in 1949 for Week-end à Zuydcoote, a highly biographical account of the British-French Dunkirk evacuation fiasco, in which Merle was caught up, and taken prisoner by the Nazis. In 1964, the novel was made into a film starring French mega-star Jean-Paul Belmondo a kind of French Steve McQueen…or was it that McQueen was an American Belmondo?

Merle already had completed several other novels, La Mort est mon métier (Death Is My Profession) – 1952 and L’Ile (The Island) – 1962. La Mort est mon métier is a fictional biography of Rudolf Höß (Hoess in English), the commandant of Auschwitz. It was not popular when first published but sales took off a decade later. It is considered a classic in what might be called “concentration camp” literature. L’Ile also met with critical success and another French literary award, prix de la Fraternité. Merle had published two major works on Oscar Wilde who was the subject of his doctoral dissertation. He had also by that time also done fine translations from English into French of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Erskine Caldwell’s Les Voix du Seigneur.

In 1964 he had just returned from two years teaching in Algeria where he taught at the University of Algiers, one of the few Frenchmen willing to participate in the post-colonial construction of that country, the Algerian war of independence having ended a mere two years prior. Although he had left at age eight, Merle was actually born in Algeria in 1908 in the eastern city of Tebessa near the Tunisian border. He had hoped to connect to the Algeria he knew but admitted a certain malaise in post-independent Algeria. He recognized that the “pied noir” world into which he had been born, his father being a French military officer, had passed from the scene forever. Still he managed a 15 part interview while there with the country’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, a manuscript that would soon be published by Gallimard, a prestigious French publishing house.

His politics were, his entire life, left of center. In the 1950s he had joined an independent left movement (independent of the French Communist Party) and was make something of a contribution and rising through the ranks so to speak when a fellow former concentration camp inmate accused him of having conspired with the Nazis. It proved to be a particularly personally vindictive accusation made mostly from jealousy – and my speculation is  – in order to limit his rising influence within that movement. Left politics is, as anyone involved knows, often as petty and personally vicious as any other kind. Merle’s innocence was vindicated but it left a sour taste and he withdrew from activism. Later, after 1964, he temporarily joined the French Communist Party, but as he found out, its “democratic centralism” was more centralist than democratic and he soon dropped out of that organization too. Although, as will be discussed some below, his personal life was increasingly “bourgeois” the essence of his politics were respect for the “common man” on the one hand and a sharp critique of U.S. foreign policy, especially (but not uniquely) the American war against Vietnam. His commitment to an independent Algeria at a time of fierce anti-Algerian sentiment in France also was uncommon in the day. He was his whole life what I would characterize as a radical democrat, at least as far as I can tell, principled in his political vision. Merle’s association with the French CP probably cost him a nomination to the Academie Goncourt,

In October 1964, Merle’s greatest literary contribution lay far in the future. He would not even begin it until 1978 when he was already seventy years of age. But at that age and at that moment he began his thirteen volume historical novel epoch of France’s 16th and 17th century religious wars between Catholics and Protestants entitled after the title of Volume One – Fortune de France. It would sell over five million copies and would propel Merle to the heights of French literature as the country’s foremost historical novelist of modern times.

If one studies Merle’s writings, it is comes through pretty clearly that he was an author looking for a mass audience and that it took him half a century to “find his voice” in the historical novel form. He tried a number of themes, none of them seemed to trigger the kind of mass market he had hoped for. Week-end à Zuydcoote is about as good of an anti-war war novel as one could find, reminiscent of Catch 22 in many ways and it was popular. La Mort est mon métier is (in my view having just finished it) about as good a psychological portrait of the making of a Nazi concentration camp commandant as one could find – won critical acclaim as cited above – but already the French public was tired of looking back to World War II – and the role of so many of them in support of Vichy. Instead they wanted to “look forward”. Several of his other works of an earlier period dealt with the possibility of global catastrophe, again, finely crafted, intellectually thoughtful. But they didn’t sell, or more specifically, they didn’t sell enough for Merle to making a living out of writing. Nor did his political writings on Castro and Ben Bella. I found his book on Ben Bella, quite frankly, lacking (and wrote about it), the one on Castro was better, but again the French public – like their American counterpart – was losing interest in “political writing”, especially of a left tinge or emphasis. He was constantly looking for “a formula”, a literary niche, where he could make his mark (and his fortune). That he was persistent cannot be denied, and an excellent wordsmith (both in English and French) was also true. He kept at it another fifteen years after I sat in his class and listened with nothing short of wonderment at his analyses of Robert Frost’s poetry.

But in the late 1970s, he found “the formula” or at least his formula for literary and financial success in historical novels spiced up with no small dose of sex. And here he it gold, nothing less and understanding that he had finally found the keys to the kind of fame and fortune, he went back again and again until he died, ripped off financially in his last months by his live-in nurse who squeezed an increasingly senile Merle out of a nice portion of his fortune. But that’s another story. From 1977 to 2003 Merle churned out thirteen novels. Thirteen novels in sixteen years for a man between the ages of 69 and 85 when he finally ran out of literary gas. The series, Fortune de France, combines historically (and sociologically) accurate events with fiction and sexual fantasy. Nice combination. In his biography of his father, Robert Merle, Une Vie de Passions, son, Pierre Merle, insists that much of the material for the sexual encounters in the novels comes from somewhat, in some cases, slightly fictionalized versions of Merle’s own sexual escapades.

Getting back to October, 1964, at the same time that his literary life was in flux, his personal life, as it had long been, was something of an ongoing disaster. In fact, from how Pierre Merle describes it, Robert Merle’s life was not just a “life of passions,” but one long epic crisis. In 1964 he was already on his third marriage, a nasty divorce to his second about to be finalized. His relations with his five children from the two previous marriages had, at the time, seriously deteriorated, in large measure as a result of lack of contact. He was soon to move from his post in Normandy to the University of Nanterre just outside Paris from when Merle would experience the great student-led protests of May, 1968, whose visions and political demands he generally supported.

Besides his marriages, Merle, by his own admission, seemed to have nothing short of a marathon of affairs, sexual liaisons, many of them with his students. That son, Pierre, could write about them so openly and honestly, impressed me as it reveals something of the man’s sleazy side, and chips away at his status as an icon. Good for Pierre, who describes in some detail how Merle would seduce his female students. The good professor would ask students to volunteer to take oral and written surveys, that Merle explained would be used to construct characters in his novels. It is very possible that he did do precisely that. The written surveys would be followed by interviews at which time the questions would become probe increasingly intimate aspects of the students lives. Some would respond, some no. In this manner Merle, a keen observer of human behavior, most especially that of the opposite sex, had a pretty good idea which of his student/victims he could hit on, which not. He also had a penchant for hitting on his research assistants, one of whom he married (his third wife, Magali, who later committed suicide).

Hard (for me) to believe, but it worked like a charm, providing Merle with a constant flow of young woman many of whom were “honored” to have sexual relations with such a great French intellectual. It didn’t hurt that for most of his adult life, Merle was an exceedingly handsome, attractive man. Still, I find his behavior, if not so unusual, rather crude and vulgar, this taking advantage of his position, a position of power, to seduce young women.

In a manner similar to which Merle was, something like Bill Clinton, a sex addict, he also acquired a taste for what might be called bourgeois living, this despite his leftist politics. He bought a series of overpriced cars (which he was convinced were useful in his sexual pursuits), expensive homes. He lived the “good life” and loved every minute of it. Fortune de France was nothing short of a cash cow and throughout his life he also received royalties on other works. If his biography is accurate, as he aged he seemed quite the materialist.

Strange as it might seem, writing with a left focus (which is in all of his works) became his special ticket into France’s ruling class, which by the end of his life he was certainly a member, co-opted by the very people he attacked and portrayed with Balzac-like accuracy in his novels. But then he was not the only child of the depression who, having grown up in poverty and genuine economic privation during the 1930s depression and then having suffered three years in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II, could not get far enough away from his past. He became, in a word, greedy. Happens to the best of folk, and some who aren’t.

(A “Part Four” of this series on Robert Merle will follow – on the series “Fortune de France”. Right now I am finishing the second of the 13 volumes so it might take a while…But it is Merle’s intellectual pearl, and so far I can say that the first two volumes are nothing short of breathtaking where Merle finds his stride, his voice and runs with it….and it is a great way to learn history. )

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The Rouen Chronicles Series

The Rouen Chronicles – Amsterdam, 1965

The Rouen Chronicles – Arques La Bataille, Dieppe

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

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

The Rouen Chronicles – Ferid Boughedir

The Rouen Chronicles – The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 1

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 2 – Ben Bella

The Rouen Chronicles – The Literary Work of Robert Merle (in two session)

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