21 December 2012

André Blavier: Les Fous littéraires (1982; repr. 2000) #1

It was while reading an article on Raymond Queneau that I discovered André Blavier (1922–2001), whose huge book Les Fous littéraires* was first published in 1982; this contained 924 pages, but additions in the 2000 edition increase it to 1147 pages. The title isn't at all easy to translate: literally it means 'Literary Madmen', but that entraps us in a gender specificity that's to some extent built into Latin-derived languages, although opting for the more politically correct 'Literary Mad People' is just ugly. And then there's the problem with the word 'mad': clearly, it frequently has pejorative connotations, but Blavier didn't intend any, so I think that – on an analogy with the expression 'outsider artists' – the term 'outsider writers' is the best to use here.

Blavier was a Belgian librarian of working-class origin from Verviers, whose life was overturned – indeed saved, as he was on the verge of suicide – by reading Queneau, who in the 1930s had unsuccessfully attempted to write a book about outsider writers, adding to Nodier's list of 'génies méconnus' ('unknown geniuses'). He failed to publish, though, but salvaged his researches by incorporating some of his subjects into a novel read by Blavier: Les Enfants du limon (1938) (Children of Clay). Blavier later got to know Queneau and in 1961 became Oulipo's foreign correspondent.

From Blavier's huge collection of eccentric people has emerged what can perhaps be described as a canon of outsider writers, of whom I mention just two here:

Jean-Pierre Brisset (1837–1919), who wrote, among a number of books, La Natation ou l’art de nager appris seul en moins d’une heure (1870) ('Swimming or the Art of Swimming Self-Taught in Under an Hour'). He developed the theory that humans evolved from frogs.

Paulin Gagne (1808–76) wrote L'Unitéide, ou la Femme-Messie ('Woman Messiah') (1857), which is a poem of 726 pages said to contain some of the most fantastic names and strangest words ever written. In L'Histoire des Miracles he tells of the time he sub-let his salon to spritualists who were followers of Allan Kardec. Bearing a crucifix, he went into one of their sessions:

'[...] je suis allé seul dans la salle où se faisaient les évocations infernales ; ô miracle étonnant et épouvantable ! à l'instant, un mouvement de rotation irrésistible s'est emparé de moi ; je tournais comme une toupie autour de la table satanique, que je couvris de crachats et de bave, et d'où s'échappaient les esprits démoniaques par la présence du crucifix que je tenais toujours à la main : Satan et Dieu se disputaient mon corps et mon âme !!'

(My translation: 'Alone, I went into the room, from which hellish apparitions were coming; oh, astounding and dreadful miracle: suddenly, an irresistible rotary movement took hold of me; I spun like a top around the satanic table, which I covered with spit and dribble, and from which demonic spirits were escaping because of the presence of the crucifix I was holding: Satan and God were arguing over my body and soul!!').

After this bizarre event, Gagne was taken to a maison de santé to recover for several days.
Paulin Gagne, artist unknown.

*The expression originates from a book by Charles Nodier (1780–1844): Bibliographe de fous: de quelques livres excentriques (Paris: Techener, 1835).

Links to my other posts on André Blavier's Les Fous littéraires are below:

André Blavier #2: Alexandre Ansaldi, G. Clair/Rupin Schkoff, Camarasa
André Blavier #3: Hyacinthe Dans
André Blavier #4: Ernest de Garay, aka Karl-des-Monts
André Blavier #5: Francisque Tapon-Fougas
André Blavier #6: Jules Allix

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