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Rouen Chronicles: The Literary Work of Robert Merle – In Two Sessions – Notes

February 2, 2016

merle-edited

(These are the notes used for two talks on “The Literary Work of Robert Merle” – done in two sessions at Westside Books – 3434 W.32nd Ave, Denver, Colorado 80211 – on January 10 and January 24, 2016)

Intro…

Have been writing “The Rouen Chronicles” now for several years. It is not so much a nostalgic look backwards of the year I spent there (1964-65) as it is a series of spin offs, consequences of that year. So I’ve written some about the history of the city – it has quite a rich past – some of the people I knew then.

It was in that spirit that I decided to write about Robert Merle – his life, his writings and his influence on me. Merle was one of my professors that year – the one who easily made the most lasting impression.

Our group, from St. Lawrence University consisted of about 25 of us, under the direction of the chair of the French Dept., Dr. Oliver Andrews and a history prof, Dr. Robert Carlisle, both now deceased for some time. Marking the 50th anniversary of our year in France, about ten of us got together for a reunion last year (October, 2014) in Atlanta.

Writing about Rouen is my way of showing my appreciation for what was a strong program – not the kind of fluff so many study abroad programs are today – and an all round memorable year that marked me in many ways. I returned from France, and much to the displeasure of certain parties, switched majors from biochemistry to French, which is the subject in which I got my B.A. degree (1966).

Merle, some background.

Robert Merle was actually 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 in the Gallipoli campaign and soon thereafter died of the flu, leaving a wife and two children to fend for themselves. Robert Merle spent his earliest years in Algiers, to where the family moved after his father’s death, before the family let Algeria for Paris.

From a very early age he was drawn to literature and the English language. Although well-educated, Merle grew up rather poor; money was always an issue in his youth. But excelling at his studies in high school (lycée – as it is called in France), he entered the Sorbonne and received degrees in English, and later his doctorate in that subject. His thesis was on the life and literary work of Oscar Wilde. With his advanced degrees he was able to get teaching jobs, first in lycees and then within the French university system.

As World War II approached, Merle was drafted into the French army and assigned as an interpreter to the British Expeditionary Force. In June,. 1940 he was at the Dunkirk evacuation on the beach at nearby Zudycoote where he was ultimately captured by the invading Nazi army. Taken prisoner he was placed in a P.O.W. camp at Dortmund from where he tried twice to escape, but was recaptured both times. Still, in July, 1943, through the intervention of his mother who maintained high level contacts with the French military and the Vichy government, Robert Merle was released from as a part of a “prison to work” program which benefitted a small number of captured French officers, permitting them to return to France where there was a severe labor shortage.

At the time he was my professor (Fall, 1964), Robert Merle was already a major cultural literary figure in France, and more broadly speaking in Europe.

He was a published author of repute.

His Weekend à Zydecoote, about the Dunkirk evacuation, had won France’s version of the Pulitzer Prize, the Prix Goncourt. It had been made into a film starring Jean Paul Belmondo, one of France’s major movie stars of the 1950s and 1960s. He had written a “psychological biographical novel based on the life of Rudolf Hoëss, Auschwitz commandant, called La Mort est mon métier (Death is my trade). Shortly after I left France, Merle wrote a novel about the misuse of animals (in this case a dolphin), Un animal doué de raison which became the film Day of the Dolphin staring George C. Scott in which a psychologist unwittingly trains a dolphin to act as an animal suicide-bomber live torpedo meant to assassinate an American president. Soon thereafter Merle would right Malevil, a science fiction thriller about the survivors of a nuclear war. It too was made into a movie in which the survivors have to fend off the threat of a theocratic dictatorship. He had also written both political and literary works – translations of Oscar Wilde and Gulliver’s Travels, as well as some openly political works that included Moncada, a description of the Cuban revolutionary group, led by Fidel Castro, which overthrew the Batista dictatorship and Ben Bella, a series of interviews with Algeria’s first post colonial president.

Heretic Dawn to be released in the USA in June, 2016

Heretic Dawn to be released in the USA in June, 2016

Fortunes de France

For all that, what Merle is most famous for today – and what I will describe in some detail both today and in the next session – is a thirteen volume series of historical novels entitled Fortunes de France. In October, 1964, the series was still many years away. It is not clear (from his son’s biography), precisely when the idea of a historical novel of France’s 16th and early 17th century religious wars crystallized in his mind. The first volume appears in 1977, the last in 2003 about a year prior to his death.

Although his earlier works were, to my mind, historically and sociologically rich in every way, and very well constructed, Merle was well aware of the facts that these earlier works, either fiction or non, that the market for his work was rather limited. The books were not selling as well as he had hoped, even the most popular of them. As history lurched forward into the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the French reading public showed a marked decline in interest in books of a political nature (which permeated pretty much all of Merle’s writings). Interest in both participating in politics and reading about it dissipated.

Merle, who had experimented with many different literary genres, kept looking for new avenues, new approaches to strike a chord with France’s reading public. He had such a wide variety of interests and themes that he pursued: political stuff, war, psychological drama, science fiction, animal behavior, translations from French to English. Each had an audience, but of a limited nature. With the publication of Fortunes de France, it was as if he had finally struck the chord he had been searching for the previous thirty years. He had struck gold both in the hearts and minds of the French reading public and financially as well.

As of 2014, Fortunes de France had sold five million copies in all. It is currently being translated into English by Pushkin Press. The first two volumes have been translated although the English titles bare little resemblance to their French counterparts. Volume One is entitled The Brethren, Volume Two, City of Wisdom, City of Blood. The third volume should appear momentarily in Great Britain (February, 2016) and in June of this year in the United States. It is entitled “Heretic Dawn” and deals with the period leading up to and including the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre in Paris in late August, 1572.

In these first two volumes of the series Merle sets out to define the epic proportions of the series: to describe, through literature, both a historical period and a specific geography. Although there are some initial episodes of “The Brethren” (Volume 1) in the north of France, virtually all of the action in this volume takes place in the Dordogne Valley, today famous for its Cro-magnon cave art (Lascaux and other caves) but then one of France’s richest agricultural regions. The tensions between French Catholics and Protestants is just heating up at the end of the 1540s. In Volume 2 – the English title of which is “City of Wisdom and Blood” – the scene moves east to the Mediterranean city of Montpellier where the main protagonist, Pierre de Siorac enters medical school.

In following volumes, the scene changes to Paris and then Bordeaux. By the time the series is done readers will have more than a passing sense of the entire country that was France in those days. This is typical of the great epic writers like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Miserables that provide a sweeping view of the country’s involved from the most rural villages to Moscow (in the case of Tolstoy) and Paris. In a like manner, such epic tales involve social geography all of society from the kings, tsars and their entourages to the poorest homeless elements passing through the middle classes. They are all there – their habits, their language, their religious and if one can call it, their philosophical views (which in those days are mostly religious).  Merle creates – from the first pages of the series – exactly this rich cornucopia of human experience.

Gutenberg Press. a century after its initial use (1450) such presses could produce up to 240 impressions per hour

Gutenberg Press. a century after its initial use (1450) such presses could produce up to 240 impressions per hour

The impact of the Gutenberg printing process.

What is referred to as the Gutenberg Bible was first printed in 1454.  It marks the introduction of the modern printing press with moveable type. Some sources suggest that between 150 and 185 copies were printed at that time (of which 48 copies survive). As one author put it:

His [Gutenberg’s) introduction of mechanical movable type printing to Europe started the Printing Revolution and is widely regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium, the seminal event which ushered in the modern period of human history. It played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.

Was it “the most important invention of the second millennium (period from 1000 – 1999 AD)? If not, it was one of the most important and is profoundly relevant to the Fortunes de France series. Until then, bibles, and frankly pretty much everything else, were hand written mostly by monks in monasteries, literacy beyond the circle of the Catholic Church being quite limited and restricted. Through their control of the printed word, the Catholic Church was able to monopolize the European intellectual and ideological climate for more than 1200 years.

The invention and quick spread throughout Europe (except Russia) of the movable type printing press changed that situation for ever. It gave a powerful intellectual weapon to the emerging – and by 1450 – already well-developed merchant class of Europe among whom literacy soon spread. Mass producing the printed word revolutionized Europe’s understanding of science, technology, which combined individual – and often lonely research – with a social context, ie, scientists could share their information with others, a necessary pre-condition for its growth and flowering. With the growth of the printing press, Europe would begin to break out of its long winter of scientific ignorance and superstition.

It should be of no surprise that the two classes of European society that would embrace the literacy resulting from the beginning of mass printing were certain elements of the nobility and the rising commercial class. The printed word offered them knowledge of the commercial world, science and technology and ultimately – the politics of the time. As a result the Catholic Church would lose its monopoly control of history, sociology, medicine and ultimately religion itself. And although there were other factors involved (economic especially), it should be no surprise that as the printed word spread – and it did with great speed that it would be an integral element in both the religious and political explosions that would soon follow.

The printed press and the spectacular growth of literacy among the nobility and commercial classes of Europe provided part of the political fuel for has come to be referred to as the Protestant Reformation, itself an integral part of what might be called a sweeping package of transition, change. These in turn mixed with other themes: the continued rise and dynamism of European (especially Northern European) capitalism that challenged the authority of the long in-place feudal system, the rise of Europe itself as the center of the world economy, the beginnings of modern nationalism and the modern nation-state, especially in the forms it took in England, France and the United Provinces (present day Netherlands).

The struggles of the Reformation against the hegemony of the Catholic Church make up, in large measure the historical and social background of the entire thirteen volumes of Fortunes de France. The combination of a new mass printing press, its translations from Latin into the vernacular languages of Europe, combined with literacy – and a millennium of abuse and corruption of Vatican-led Catholicism – to produce a strong opposition movement intent on reworking and radically revising the basis of Christianity: Protestantism. Able to read the Bible, and thus to interpret its message and wisdom differently from how its message was shaped by the Vatican, the Protestant revolt began in 1517 when a rebellious Catholic priest named Martin Luther posted what are referred to as his “Ninty-Five Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg (today in Germany).

Luther’s protest set in motion a series of events that would wreak havoc in Europe for the next 130 years, until 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. It was a searing protest both the practices and theology of the Vatican, and this less than seventy years after Gutenberg’s bible appeared on the scene, a powerful and irreversible break with tradition. Thirty years after 1517 wars erupt in throughout Europe, in large measure religious in nature, between the old-established Catholicism and the new religion Protestantism, first defined by Luther, later refined greatly by John Calvin. While strongly religious in nature, these wars were also highly political, revolts against Spanish colonialism in what was called the Low Countries (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium) and an intense religious and class struggle in England, France and (what later would become) Germany.

Few volumes capture the essence and spirit of the times as well as Merle’s series. Fiction yes, but also a wonderful way to learn history itself in all its richness.

Links:

Rouen Chronicles – Amsterdam, 1965

Rouen Chronicles – Arques La Bataille, Dieppe

Rouen Chronicles – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17th, 1942 – Part One

Rouen Chronicles – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 – Part Two

Rouen Chronicles – The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 1

Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 2 – Ben Bella

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

Rouen Chronicles – Rouen’s Jewish Heritage

Rouen Chronicles – Ferid Boughedir

 

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