French novelist Michel Déon was born in Paris and died in Galway in 2016 at the age of 97. Admirers of Fournier and Flaubert and the world according to Proust would love his writing which is pared down and, although quintessentially French, has a universal resonance. The author of more than fifty works of fiction and non-fiction, and a member of the Académie Française, Déon was also a member of the 1950s French literary movement, ‘Les Hussards’, founded by Roger Nimier to oppose Existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre. (The group was named after Roger Nimier’s novel Le Hussard bleu – The Blue Hussar). The distinguished and controversial right-wing novelist, Paul Morand, was an inspirational figure for the group. “They form a fascinating quartet of original, cosmopolitan, witty minds, far superior to their British contemporaries, the Angry Young Men,” poet, novelist and translator, James Kirkup wrote in The Independent in 2001.
“The Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England, walked past, a cigar clamped between his teeth, in an out-at-elbow suit with corkscrewing trousers and his jacket pockets stuffed with tokens he had forgotten to cash in on his way out of the gaming room. A woman walked a step ahead of him, not turning round. She had an imperious expression and a very mobile face and wore a boater with a black ribbon. She was dripping with jewellery. Blanche said to her son, ‘Look. That’s Mademoiselle Chanel. Thanks to her we can cut our hair short without looking like servants’.” [Your Father’s Room, p. 36]
Julian Evans and Gallic Books have done a superb job of bringing Michel Déon’s work to an English-reading readership – the recognition it is receiving is long overdue. It is with curiosity and anticipation that I sat down to read Your Father’s Room, a fictionalised memoir a.k.a. narrative non-fiction largely set in the South of France in the 1920s. The story begins with the author referring to his “memory box“opening and closing with a click like the shutter of an old camera.
Images from childhood stay with you all your life. There are words that stick, and faces that don’t, and vice versa. Arguments among the literati about truth vs. lies and memoir-writing vs. narrative non-fiction are like a gordian knot. Hindsight bias has similarities to memory distortions. What one person remembers is forgotten by another. Perceptions vary wildly, and context matters.
The City of Lights
Édouard a.k.a. Teddy is born into a bourgeois Parisian family. It is thanks to his uncle’s mistress that his parents end up in the sixteenth arrondissement since she owns several buildings in rue Henri-Heine and Avenue Mozart. “In a huge sitting room with scented oil lamps burning all around, a languid-looking woman is half lying on a sofa overflowing with damask cushions, a Pekinese on her knees, toying with an amber necklace and smoking mauve cigarettes with golden tips. She kisses him and lets him plunge his hand into a crystal bowl filled with chocolates. An aura of mystery surrounds her.” Such an exotic image conjures that voluptuous painting of Sarah Bernhardt by Georges Clairin.
Teddy’s parents are gregarious and throw parties. The boy particularly likes Pat Paterson who lives in Montparnasse with a woman “who moved in all the artistic and bohemian circles: she had modelled for Van Dongen, Kisling and Pascin, who had all painted her portrait. She was known as La Monicci, she had a lovely sing-song Italian accent, and Papa said she was painted like a fairground and festooned with jewels so big they had to be false.” Pat and his mistress are nice to the boy and generous: he is given a Peugeot bicycle for Christmas and a complete set of lead soldiers.
Teddy also hears his parents arguing and learns “not to repeat the things that grown-ups say.” After observing a man with curly blond hair standing behind his mother as she makes coffee in the kitchen “his arms wrapped around her waist and nibbling the nape of her neck. She is laughing, not resisting, murmuring words that could just as easily be ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no’,” Teddy’s relationship with his industrious, distant father changes. “From now on, Teddy can only see in his father a man he hides from in order to avoid the Truth. As a result, their relationship will remain difficult to the end, an end that comes much sooner than anyone imagined . . .” The boy obeys his mother. “‘Not a word’ was one of Blanche’s cardinal rules, as it was for others. Any violation was severely punished. You only spoke freely to yourself or to a blank sheet of paper.”
Thank Heavens for Little Girls
Schooling with “Mademoiselle de Cordemoy – Private Tuition” involves a dozen pupils congregating in what was once a sitting room in a private home. Teddy is sandwiched between Evangeline from Guadeloupe who smells of vanilla and is “surrounded by admirers who loved her giggles and gaiety and the massive goodness that radiated from her. No one would have dreamt of making fun of her size or the colour of her skin or her laziness,” and the beautiful, mute, studious Huguette who sits on his right like an alabaster statue. Evangeline smothers him with kisses when she can, while Huguette is cool and disinterested – “Teddy was finding out that there are some women so unreachable they are only present for the twinkling of an eye.”
A Carnival of Characters
The family moves south to Monte Carlo where Teddy’s father is now counsellor to the Prince, and has “an official car with a uniformed chauffeur to drive him, and Maman was given a convertible coupé as a present.” Those living the high-life on the Côte d’Azur bring to mind Noel Coward’s famous quip about the Midi being “a sunny place for shady people” (it still is!) . . . an ageing mistress of Edward VII Prince of Wales who enjoys showing off her still-shapely legs . . . Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich a.k.a. the last Romanov who was involved in the murder of Rasputin and cuts a dashing figure . . . the notorious arms dealer Basil Zaharoff (who appears in Tintin and the Broken Ear) . . . a crazy Russian émigré who assassinates the President of the French Republic.
General Peter Polovtsov does PR for the casino and the private beaches, and his wife works as a portraitist. After painting Barbara Hutton, the world’s richest woman, the high-society crowd beat a path to her door. Amazingly she suggests doing a portrait of Teddy, and his parents are delighted.
Teddy goes to see films like The Mystery of the Yellow Room with rebellious tomboy Katie who “smoked eucalyptus cigarettes in the street,” and they get up to mischief. He learns at a young age that “no crime – was it a crime? – goes unpunished, especially if you’re innocent.”
Teddy’s observations about the people around him may be those of a child coming of age, but he sees things grown ups cannot (or prefer not to) see. His gorgeous mother Blanche, who “smelled deliciously good”, is anything but a good girl in reality; and his father is skilled at “making unpleasant situations bearable as he was of expressing his pessimism about promising ones.” The relations between the grown ups come to light slowly and tantalizingly. There are shadows and innuendoes behind the façade of glittering glamour. Nothing can be said. The boy learns to dissemble. As the final curtain comes down he has to grow up fast and suddenly. It is only in front of the cook, Giuseppina, that he can let go, be himself and show emotion . . . but “The scars of an uncompleted childhood never heal.”
The Romantic Riviera
Your Father’s Room is a bittersweet masterpiece of confusion and heartache, nuance and atmosphere, beautifully translated by Julian Evans. It opens a window on to a lost world of elegant bohemia – that of the Romantic Riviera of The Ballets Russes, Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray and Katherine Mansfield. Today, it is largely forgotten that it is the British and the White Russians who brought to the rocky playground peninsula an aura of bejewelled glamour and beautiful gardens. Villas once owned by the stars of the avant garde like Somerset Maugham, Coco Chanel and Graham Sutherland are now inhabited by wealthy Arabs and Russians. Nostalgic and disturbingly familiar, Michel Déon’s remembrance of things past is well worth reading.
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