The Life and Work of Robert Merle: A Lecture by Rob Prince at the Alliance Française of Denver. April 4, 2017 – Notes
Script – Merle Talk
Thank Martin Lafitte, Director, Alliance Française of Denver
Mention late Carole Ashkinaze, Judy Johnson, Dr. Oliver Andrews, Dr. Robert Carlisle..
It is interesting – if one doesn’t dwell on it too much – to look back on one’s life at the age of 72. It struck me a few years ago that there were a number of experiences in my youth which to some degree shaped a good part of my life in one way or another.
– Of course, there is my family and class background
– Where and when one grows up – myself, in Brooklyn and Queens New York in the 1950s and 1960s
– My education in the NYC public schools of those years – PS 170 Queens, Van Wyck Junior High School 217 and Jamaica High School, where I would argue, a person got the best education public education had to offer anywhere in the country, now or then.
There were two other experiences that it is only later, I realized, had an influence on the rest of my life. They were
1. A year (August, 1964 to late July 1965) spent in Paris and Rouen France at St. Lawrence University’s first Junior Year Abroad program in France. Especially important was a class I took on the poetry of Robert Frost, taught by none other than Robert Merle.
2. My two and a half years spent in the Peace Corps in Tunisia as a volunteer and later staff member in both Tunis and Sousse, Tunisia.
I mention all this because as the 50th anniversary of the year spent in France came and went, I decided I wanted to show my appreciation – a kind of intellectual payback if you will – to those last two experiences. As a part of that I decided to read the entire thirteen volume epic series that Robert Merle work – his masterpiece – Fortunes de France – and read it in French, which I did over the course of two years.
I have written some about Merle, his life and work. This is the third public presentation that I made on Fortunes de France. The fact that the first three volumes of this series have been translated into English by Pushkin Publishers made my remarks more timely.
Why give a lecture on Robert Merle?
– The series “Fortunes de France” – well-known in France – is an extraordinarily rich portrait of 16th and early 17th Century France – historically, sociologically, religiously. As a whole, the series sold more than 5 million copies.
– It deals with a period of religious and political turbulence that went on for the better part of a century in which religion, politics, economics, cultural diversity versus uniformity, all were a part of the package.
– If it is an epic tale of how difficult is social change, reconciliation – these religious wars in France went on for more than a century, still it is a tale of what might be called “measured optimism” that the human condition can, albeit with difficulty, improve – become more humane, more generous, more tolerant…
– In this particular case, the glue that keeps the whole of society – France – from falling apart – is nationalism…that in the end the fate of the nation, ultimately took precedence over religious conflict.
– It is also a celebration of political moderation and the need, call for tolerance, moderates who are caught between extremists…how can they manage, survive in an age of increasing polarization
– Finally, – “last but not least” as is often said, for “one brief shining moment” in late 1964 – for several months, Robert Merle was my professor at the Universite of Rouen, in Mt. St. Aignon, in the hills above Rouen in Normandy, France. He gave a sense of what a teacher, a professor can do to enrich the lives of others…
Certainly there are – and we can talk about it in the questions and answers – certain broad parallels with.
General details of Merle’s personal life
Born in Tebessa in 1908, eastern Algeria (place I visited half a century ago – a story in and of itself), the son of a French army officer interpreter, Captain Félix Merle and Eugénie Ollagnié, the third of three children.
Fluent in Arabic, Captain Félix Merle served a number of places prior to being stationed in Tebessa. He was a part of the French contingent of the Allied failed attempt to seize Gallipoli. There he contracted typhoid, was transferred to Marseilles by ship where he died.
Robert Merle was seven years old when his father died, a terrible blow. He would compensate for the loss of his father in real life by creating an imaginary one in his series, Fortunes de France – the extraordinarily close loving relationship between the Siorac’s father and son.
Robert Merle spent his early years growing up in Tebessa among the French colon society. He would return after independence to try to contribute to “the new Algeria” .
In 1918, what remained of the family, his mother, a brother and sister soon left Algeria and moved to Paris.
In Paris, he attended the Lycée Condorcet in Paris where he excelled and then the Sorbonne.
In 1930 he came to the United States where he spent a year teaching in a high school near Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating from the Sorbonne graduating with a double degree in Philosophy and English. His phd thesis was on the life and work of Oscar Wilde.
Like other young Frenchmen in 1939 he was mobilized into the French army. He was at Dunkirk during the great British withdrawal across the English Channel. He was captured by the Nazis and spent the next three years in a Nazi concentration came in Germany.
At the end of the war, he returns to France and begins to write seriously. One of his early works, Weekend á Zuydcoote, published in 1949, wins him France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt – compared to the American Pulitzer.
The film starred the famous French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo and appeared in 1964 – same year I happened to be in France.
Weekend á Zuydcoote was the beginning of a series of fascinating books – most of a somewhat political nature…I won’t mention all of them..Just a few..
– La Mort Est Mon Metier – (Death is My Profession) a kind of psychological portrait, in fiction form, of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, captured, tried and executed in 1947. it was also made into a film by Theodor Kotulla “Aus einem deutschen Leben” in 1977
– Un animal doué de raison – The Day of the Dolphin – a fascinating kind of “science fiction” in which an “intelligence agency” tries to teach a dolphin how to engage assassination…a kind of living drone attack. Also made into a film starring George C. Scott, made between Dr. Strangelove and Patton.
– Moncada – which is interviews with Fidel Castro about his early battles and Ben Bella, based on interviews with Ahmed Ben Bella, first president of independent Algeria. He would soon be removed in a coup.
Merle also wrote major works literary criticism of the work of Oscar Wilde, which he returned to frequently
Writing career takes a dive
For all that in the late 1960s and earl 1970s Merle’s career took a dive. People stopped reading his books, sales plummeted, despite the fact the books produced were fascinating…very well written with interesting subject matter.
Mostly here I am referring to his main, French, audiences. Their interest in politics, in one way or another, the subject of most of his works, had faded.
– Ahmed Ben Bella had been replaced by Hoari Boumedienne and the beginning of what is essentially a military dictatorship in Algeria which continues until today, had started.
– The early romanticism concerning the Cuban Revolution had also faded with the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia, the increased Soviet role in Cuban politics.
For as fascinating – to me at least – as all of Merle’s writings were – I have most of them in my library – they had ceased to strike a chord among what Merle saw as his main audience – not academics in Denver, Colorado, but the French public.
How to reconnect with his shrinking reader base? And for this…Merle turned…to history, not any history but French history…and not any period of French history, but a period of more than a century of extraordinary turmoil ..
The Roads Not Taken
Given that so much of French history involves turmoil…he could have picked a number of centuries, …but didnt’
For example he could have chosen the century that began with French-Prussian War of 1870-71 and ended with uprising of 1968 which forced De Gaulle from power. He could have analyzed the whys and wherefores of what were three crushing defeats that France suffered at German hands…ok two crushing defeats and a draw (WW One)…that includes chapters of the French colonial conquest of parts of Africa, the anti-colonial wars of the 20th century – Indochina, Algeria, Cameroon, Madagascar.
But he chose not too..too many others were writing about it..and besides, no way not to have a polarized audience – as even today the French public is mixed, if not torn over some of these questions – Algeria in particular
He could have chosen the century just before the French Revolution of 1789 – the work of the great philosophers, “les philosophes” as they are called, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu and others that continued after the Revolution to Napoleon, the uprisings of 1832, 1848 culminating in the 1879 revolt that led to temporary but fascinating emergence of what is known as “the commune” …a century of struggles between secularism and the role of the Catholic Church in French life.
But again he chose not too…
Instead, he chose another period one that begins a few decades after the onset of the Protestant Reformation in the 1540s and follows the path of French history well into the next century.
It is an interesting – absolutely fascinating period, not unlike our own in many ways…filled with all kinds of conflicts, political, religious, territorial, personal….the sub-themes of which all are blended in what would be a most extraordinary epic tale in the best tradition of historical novels.
Frankly, in my post-work world, nothing grabs me quite as emotionally as good quality historical novels…Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, David Downing’s Zoo Station (and the other Berlin metro stations come to mind)…The good ones play the characters and narrative within the context of a world different from our own in time and space and try to give “life to history.”
That is what Merle does in his monumental – and that it is – 13 volume series, Fortunes de France – French Fortunes – a title that is both accurate and ironic.
– With Fortunes de France, he had finally in this series, found his voice, one that combines history, human hope and stupidity, technological progress, the spirit of Renaissance rationalism with other human pre-occupations: sex, good food and drink, human companionship, all knitted into a wondrous literary package….
The “problem” of teaching History.
What is the “advantage” of “mining history” for fiction as Merle did in this series? – over the years in teaching, I found myself doing something similar…
What is the problem? The problem is that history, recent or past, if accurately taught is painful, is filled with both the wonder and horror that makes up that strange mix that is the human experience.
But…the further one goes back, the more difficult it is – with some exceptions – to be emotionally involved…
I mean if we talk about Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations today…most people come to the discussion with what might be called their intellectual boxing gloves on…depending on your upbringing, thinking, whatever…
But how angry can most of you get about Catholic-Protestant relations in 16th century France? …especially in Denver Colorado?
It is the distance in time and space to permits us to look at, explore, analyze what happened at that time and place with, I would argue, a higher degree of objectivity, precisely because it is so removed from our own lives.
Needless to say…we are all, myself certainly quite consciously, intellectually “multi-tasking”…by this I mean we do what..
1. We learn what we can about a specific moment in time – long ago and far away..
2. We compare – always in everything we read, see and do, frankly, with our own experience today.
And that is what makes it fun and interesting.
Yes, it involves some speculation…speculation based upon an increasing objective – if you like – honest reading of history…
And this is why we talk about Robert Merle’s Fortunes de France.
Some details of the book/series itself..
a. first of all it is interesting and accurate history personalized…an interesting way of packaging history for those who have found the subject matter difficult to digest other ways..
– on pretty much every page, there is the “what-would-I-do-in-this situation” kind of dramas
b. It is a cultural geography – over the course of the 13 volumes of all of France…as such it is also a geographic history…for those of you who have read Les Miserables – or even saw the musical – it is similar – a kind of national drama that gives each section of the country has “a place in the choir” that is France…Merle knows all of it – urban, rural, from the south of France to the English channel…from Brittany to the German border…good to read the series with a good French atlas
c. The culture, the morality of the times, the class, religious, ethnic relations are all vividly developed…in fact it has a great deal of what I would call a historical ethnography about it. Food – French food from the 16th century – how it is prepared, what it tastes like is intertwined in essentially every page.
d. It is also a linguistic history of France, the ways in which the “Langedoc” – Occitan spoken in the South (close to Catalan) mixes with the French of Paris and the more northern regions. Also the Parisian French of the 16th century is different from the French of today in the same manner that Shakespearean English varies from its more recent forms.
Merle is, above all, a lover – I must admit I am far more bored with the endless flow of short-term, long-term affairs, than with his love of language, in this case the French language, its history, its present forms.
Although there was a time when I could rattle of French about as well as English – I lived in French-speaking countries, or used it for the better part of a decade in France, Tunisia and Finland – as I use it less now, I find myself struggling for “the right word”…but I can read it easily and for the most part, without the need to refer to a dictionary…
Except when reading Merle. I found myself – across the 13 volumes – looking up wonderful words on so many pages. You might say that he is “showing off”…but if he is, what he is showing off is the depth, the diversity, the richness of the French language which in every manner and way, is as rich as English…with a grammar that is to my mind far more rationale.