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Robert Merle: Notes on Jan 10, 2016 Talk on “Fortunes de France” – Part One; Westside Books – 3434 W.32 Ave. Denver, Colorado 80211

January 10, 2016
Robert Merle

Robert Merle


Note on the notes: I occasionally publish notes on the talks I give – usually at the request of the audience. Generally speaking my notes and the presentations given are not that far apart. I do wander from them as mood and questions come up, but almost always come back to the main themes. Rarely do I get through what I want to cover. It used to bother me, but doesn’t anymore. Thanks Dawn S. for the above wonderful photo of Merle




Thank Lois – Westside Books

Part One – Why This Subject? Why Me?

A couple of themes come together that explain these two meetings on Robert Merle…

1. The beginning of the translation of his 13 volume series “Fortunes de France” into English – the historical novel series that covers a turbulent period in French history – from the mid 16th to the mid 17th centuries and the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that dominated the period. Volumes 1 and 2 have been translated – Volume 1 as “The Brethren”, Volume 2 as “City of Wisdom and Blood.” – A third translated volume dealing with the time of the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre of 1572 is supposed to be out next month, in February, 2015

2. A personal landmark – the 50th anniversary of the Junior Year Abroad in Paris and Rouen France during which time I had Robert Merle as a professor for a seminar.

Turned 65 six years ago
Thinking of experiences that “made a difference” – “formative experiences” – although I didn’t know it at the time.

Two came to mind:
a. My nearly 3 years in the Peace Corps in Tunisia
b. a Junior Year Abroad Program in Rouen France organized by St. Lawrence University – which I attended and graduated from.

How to express my gratitude? Appreciation for these experiences: write about them.

And that is what I did…

I started writing about Tunisia – refamiliarizing myself with the country’s economy, history, social situation in 2009 – about a year before the advent of the Arab Spring.

And I started writing about that year in France at about the same time.

It was St. Lawrence University’s first junior year programs in France – took place in Paris for 6 weeks, the rest of the year in Rouen, France. It was organized by Dr. Oliver Andrews and was, compared to what I know these programs of study abroad to be today, a much more serious academic programs – quite rigorous – I almost flunked out. But I didn’t – I survived somehow

When I returned from France in the summer of 1965 – and much to the displeasure of my parents – I switched majors from bio-chemistry to French literature – which is what I got my B.A. degree in…I never looked back and have never regretted this decision.

I was told such a path was useless, that it was irrelevant, kind of snooty, whatever…
To the contrary: it has been a part of my life and a very useful one ever since.

The Rouen Chronicles.

So to mark the 50th anniversary to what I would call my “partial awakening” – writing about Rouen is my way of simply saying “thanks” for what was an extraordinary year

The series I started to write about is called “the Rouen Chronicles” – it is on my blog.
These are not primarily a nostalgic look back at that year – August 1964 – August 1965, but a series of spin offs…consequences of that year

– people I met that year and what happened to them afterwards
– some stuff about the history of Rouen, a very interesting, dynamic place, that I learned only years later (the history of its Jewish population, its role in the religious wars that Merle writes about)
– some stuff about the region – Dieppe, Arques la Bataille
– and it was in that spirit that I decided to reread the writings of Robert Merle, one of my professors that year.
– oh yes, we were a group of about 25 students – all from St. Lawrence University – last October about ten of us got together for a reunion – it was the 50th anniversary of the year spent in Rouen. We met in Atlanta.

Robert Merle

Concerning Robert Merle – a few comments on “our relationship”…

Of course I didn’t know him well – as I recall only exchanged words with him once…
He was far more interested in getting to know the women in our group.

Still, he was an extraordinary teacher.

I’ve had many very good teachers in my education, but few extraordinary ones – Robert Merle was in that category.

Strangely enough the course he taught me was not about France or French literature – it was a series of seminars on the poetry of Robert Frost.
You should know that Robert Frost had his own special relationship with St. Lawrence University – of which the university has made much of – he went there for a year or two as I remember. Some of his papers are found there.

Anyway when I was told I was required to take a course in Rouen France on the poetry of Robert Frost in English – I was more than skeptical…until Merle started to talk.

Several things became clear from the first:

– his English was impeccable – its vocabulary, grammar – the very way he put the words together you could see he took great pleasure in using the language – that it was a love affair with language of the likes I had never seen
– that his understanding of Frost’s poetry was profound – that he loved Frost, how he made poetry, his careful use of language and of the subtle (to me – secret) messages that lay behind the words – everything was on two levels.

As we will see – his love of language as not limited to English – but also included his own, native French – as among other things Fortunes de France – is a history of the French language as well as a certain difficult period in the country’s history

At the time that Robert Merle was my professor, he was already a major cultural figure in France, and more broadly speaking, in Western Europe, less so, but still in certain circles, he was known here in the USA as well

– He was already a published author of some renown
– His Weekend á Zuydcoote, written in 1949, a fictionalized account of the chaos of the British withdrawal from Dunkirk had won France’s version of the Pultizer Prize – the Prix Goncourt.
– It had been made into a film starring Jean Paul Belmundo, one of France’s major movie stars of the 1950s and 1960s.
– He had written a “psychological, biographical novel” of the commandant of Auschwitz – Rudolf Höess – (English translation – Death Is My Trade La Mort Est Mon Metier)
– Shortly after I left Rouen Merle wrote a novel about a dolphin – Un Animal doué de raison- which became the American film “The Day of the Dolphin” starring George C. Scott
– He would soon thereafter write “Malevil” – a science fiction work about the survivors of a nuclear war – it too was made into a film in which the survivors have to fend off the threat of theocratic dictatorship.

Some of his work is openly political:

Moncada – about the rebels, led by Castro who overthrew Batista in Cuba
– Ben Bella – interviews with the first president of independent Algeria – soon to be overthrown by his own military
– Diaries of Che Guevara

He also wrote extensively on the life and work of Oscar Wilde and translated Gullivers’ Travels into English as well as some of American Eskine Caldwell’s works.

One can say that until he plunged into the series Fortunes de France – that his work concentrated on a number of contemporary themes – war, evil in modern times (the Nazis), the danger of nuclear war, civil rights and freedom of speech (Oscar Wilde, Erskine Caldwell) and that he did so with great dignity and humanity…he was, before everything – a great humanist.

Politically he was on the left but his intellectual independence got him in trouble with the different organizations to which he adhered.
– He was never much at “towing a party line” nor did he take pleasure in what were – and are – the unending mostly irrelevant intra-party struggles.
– He did adhere to the French Communist Party although from what I can tell, was not active in the party itself. He broke with them over their support of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
– But even these associations probably cost him a nomination into France’s Legion d’Honneur

Fortunes de France

For all that, the series he was most famous for and that I will go into great detail – for those interested – in the Jan. 24 session, Fortunes de France was still many years away.

It is still not clear to me when exactly the idea of a historical novel series based on 16th or 17th century France took shape…

He started working on the first volume – in French (Fortunes de France), in English (the Brethren) in the mid 1970s, the first volume published in 1977.
The last volume appeared in 2003, just a year prior to his death.
In between he published a volume approximately every other year.

Although his earlier works were – to my mind – fascinating, well done, humane – he began to notice that these works, despite their quality, failed to attract a mass audience. Some of them – especially the political works – were financial flops.

– As history lurched from the 1950s to the 1960s and 1970s, the French public’s interest in politics – both participating in it and reading about – dissipated to a certain extent.
– Merle kept looking for new avenues to reach that public. In Fortunes de France which he began to start writing at almost the age of 70 – (hope for some of us) – he found his “niche”
– by two years ago – 2014, Fortunes de France had sold 5,000,000 copies and Merle was being compared with the greats of French literature – Dumas, Hugo etc.
– It is currently being translated into English by Pushkin Publishers.
– The first two volumes are out in English, Volume 3 is supposed to appear next month, February, 2016.

Highlights of Merle’s life

Robert Merle was not born in France but in Tebessa, Algeria in 1908, the son of Felix and Eugenie Merle. His father was an interpreter for the French army who was wounded at Gallipoli and soon thereafter died of the flu, leaving a wife and two children, Merle and his sister, Christiane.
– He spent his earliest years at French schools in Algiers before his mother moved them to Paris where he continued his education.
– Although he was well-educated, he grew up rather poor; money was always an issue
– He enters the Sorbonne and goes on to get a degree in English – then a doctorate, his doctoral thesis being on the life and work of Oscar Wilde
– With his degrees, he was able to get a teaching job, first in lycees and then in the French university system.

As WW2 approached, Merle was drafted into the French Army and assigned as an interpreter to the British Expeditionary Force
– In 1940 Merle was at the Dunkirk evacuation at the beach at Zuydcoote (the beach just s. of Dunkirk), and was captured by the Germans
– Taken prisoner, he was placed in a POW camp at Dortmund, Germany (in W. Germany) from where he twice tried to escape and was recaptured
– Through the intervention of his mother with the Vichy Government, given his father’s military record and connections, Merle was released from a POW camp in July of 1943 as a part of a “prison-to-work” program which benefitted a small number of captured French officers, permitting them to return to France.

Merle was married three times, and had four sons and two daughters. He died in 2004 at age 95 of a heart attack in Montfort-l’Amaury, France

6 Comments leave one →
  1. robert greene permalink
    January 10, 2016 3:13 pm

    sounds like lots of good books to explore. has the book on dunkirk been published in english?

    • January 10, 2016 3:25 pm

      Bobby – to my knowledge – Weekend a Zuydcoote has not been translated into English – although a dvd version of it is available – had one but passed it on. Many of the others have. I think “Day of the Dolphin” and “Death Is My Profession” are quite good – regards, Rob

  2. January 11, 2016 8:26 am

    To Chris Kendall – your question last night…Chris, was thinking about your question last night – the comparison between life in Europe in the 14th century – which you read about in Barbara Tuchman and in the 16th as exemplified in Merle’s “The Brethren.”…Some similarities – the level of uncertainty, chaos, danger in everyday life continues – but some key differences. Last night the differences started to come to mind and I will cite a few here…
    1. By the 16th century, the European economy has started its upward spiral as a result of the explorations – which free Europe of its dependency on the Middle East as a transit zone for goods (spices, silks, manufactured products) coming from E. Asia – the old “Spice Route” is losing its vibrancy – the Mediterranean some of its strategic importance and Europe is becoming richer and beginning to reverse the balance between itself and East Asia – especially China and India. There is also as a result of the discoveries, new flow of cheap raw materials into Europe – minerals, food sources.
    2. I cannot overemphasize one technological development which will revolutionize human affairs and is often mentioned, but usually downplayed – the invention of the Gutenburg printing press. With that, printed material becomes more accessible, literacy grows beyond the narrow framework – largely previously controlled by religious elements – and “everyman” now has access to new information, foremost among the new developments – people can read the bible by themselves – without the intervention of a priest. This in turn will be one of the main sources of the Protestant Reformation – who can read and interpret the Bible and how it is interpreted, There are certainly other factors involved, but these two are examples of how the European social landscape is beginning to shift, to change.

  3. Christopher Kendall permalink
    January 11, 2016 10:37 am

    Thanks, Rob. It occurred to me while reading your comment that advances in firearm design also had a profound effect, making wholesale slaughter much cheaper to arrange. I expect Merle discusses this at some point in the series.

    • January 11, 2016 10:41 am

      Yes, that was another genuine key – especially as it applied to naval power – and European ability to seize trade routes – especially in the Indian Ocean and Pacific from Arab (Yemeni, Omani), Indian and Chinese traders…and yes, information on improvements in weaponry – and warfighting in general – the emergences of standing armies – are sprinkled throughout Merle’s works. He is keenly aware of these developments (although me being me, I didn’t concentrate on them very much in my readings…but will start to zero in on that stuff too)

  4. aurelia aurita permalink
    January 27, 2016 3:28 pm

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