19 February 2014

Georges Duhamel: Le Désert de Bièvres (1937)

In December 1906 l'Abbaye de Créteil was formed and lasted until January 1908. Inspired by Rabelais's Abbaye de Thélème, it was intended as a kind of non-religious artistic commune, an escape from the commercialisation of the mind, from the slavery to which artistic people were subjected, printing its own works and leading a 'natural' life.

It wouldn't have been possible without the writer Charles Vildrac, who was strongly supported by his friend the poet Georges Duhamel. They found a rundown mansion – belonging to the automobile manufacturer Barriquand – for rent in Créteil and the poets René Arcos and (slightly later) Alexandre Mercereau, the painters Albert Gleizes and Henri Doucet, the printer Lucien Linard, and others, took part in the (very short-lived) experiment. The poet Henri-Martin Barzun was the patron. Thirty years after the event, Georges Duhamel gave a fictional representation of l'Abbaye Créteil in his novel Le Désert de Bièvres.

Le Désert de Bièvres is fifth in Duhamel's Chronique des Pasquiers series of novels, and it's easy to tell that there are a number of things about the protagonist Justin Weill that relate to Vildrac, just as there are a number of things that link the narrator Laurent Pasquier – who has put off his medical studies for the project – to Duhamel himself. There's a printer called Jules Piquenart who may well represent Lucien Linard, although little is heard of the patron the Marquis Farfreyde, and Duhamel seems to have jumbled the other characters about, perhaps to protect the guilty, perhaps just to fictionalize the issue more.

Almost from the start the poet Jean-Paul Sénac is trouble, perhaps indicated by the fact that he likes a drink (or two). But that is a relatively small thing, as there are a number of other bad habits he has: he stays in bed late, he's lazy and pisses out of his bedroom window rather that go to the toilet, and we discover towards the end that when he picked his nose he left the findings on his chair. He's a professional complainer, but most of all he can't live without mocking people, inventing all kinds of insulting names for them.

If this makes the book sound humorous, it certainly is in many parts – Sénac knows, for instance, from the creaking of the bed above and the sighing coming from it that the painter Raoul Brénugat is having fun with his wife again, and he must be in very good shape as he's at it not just every night but often in the morning, and at times after lunch. For a while though, Sénac will have to ease his frustration by bullying the stray dog who's made himself at home in the Abbaye and is rather taken to this poet-monster.

There's also Armand Larseneur the musician, the ardent vegetarian and philosopher Bernard Jusserand and his wife who turns out not to be his wife, and Testevel the editor, all more or less surviving through a number of months until internal conflicts and money problems mean that – slowly but surely – the utopia-turned-dystopia loses its inhabitants and only the original Justin and Laurent remain to concede defeat and make imminent plans for going back into the outside world.

Perhaps surprisingly, the real press managed (painstakingly, with a pedal machine) to produce about twenty books. This one is highly readable.

Links to my previous blog post of l'Abbaye de Créteil – plus a forty-minute video (including an aged Vildrac) relating the history of the Abbaye – are below.

L'Abbaye de Créteil, Val-de-Marne
L'Abbaye (1906–1908) [Video]

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