14 July 2015

Henri Calet: De ma lucarne: chroniques: (1945-55 (various articles); repr. PBP 2000)

Henri Calet (1904—1956) is perhaps most noted for his autobiographical novel La Belle Lurette (1935), although this collection of a large number of his articles – under the heading De ma lucarne after the first published article here – also contains autobiographical information, although often indirectly.

The articles in De ma lucarne (lit. 'From My Skylight') were published between 1945 and 1955 in a number of papers such as Combat, Le Figaro littéraire, Carrefour, and a few have never been previously published. They are not in chronological order and cover a wide variety of subjects but with the focus on Paris, where Calet lived in the 14e: 26 rue de la Sablière.

As Calet wanders or rides through Paris what strikes the reader is the writer's lack of imposition of authority, his humbleness, his concern for the marginals, the poor, those who have little say in the running of the country. In fact he sometimes writes as if he's an outsider not just to others but to himself, and Jean-Pierre Martinet's interest in Calet makes sense because he can be so unassuming as to be almost invisible: in a parenthesis in 'Un rendez-vous manqué' ('A Missed Meeting') he says 'to tell you the truth I don't feel completely at home anywhere'.

Because the articles aren't in any evident date order, we have the hardships of the immediate post-war experience, the queues, the increases in prices, the rationing, etc, come after many chronologically later events. It's particularly the series of articles that Calet writes about his fascination for tiny, obscure museums that I find of great interest: the musée de la Préfecture de police, the musée postal de la France, the musée de l'Assistance Publique, the musée de la Légion d'honneur, the musée des Travaux publiques (Public Works), the musée de l'Asperge (Asparagus Museum) in Argenteuil, the musée du Montparnasse, and so on. In these museums, it's certainly the exhibits that fascinate Calet, but just as much it's the behaviour of the attendants and the (often scarce) fellow clientele. Perhaps the best illustration of this is not so much a museum visit but a guide to 'Historical Paris' that he tags on to like a lost sheep: he's far less interested in a story about a late eighteenth century killing than he is in counting the number of beauty spots a woman at the side of him has.

In 'Tout se rouillait peu à peu' ('Everything Was Turning to Rust Bit by Bit') Calet remembers going with his father to the canal Saint-Martin and his father in turn remembers being beaten and imprisoned for several days for trying to dodge paying for a restaurant meal with a friend in his youth, and despises the injustice of it. But as they look for a métro station and his father is still thinking of his beating forty years before, Calet is thinking of the working-class writer Eugène Dabit*, who used to live in his parents' Hôtel du Nord next to a bar where he and his father have just had a drink. Dabit wrote a book called Hôtel du Nord (1923) that Marcel Carné turned into a film in 1938, which the avid cinema-goer Calet must have seen. He must also have been aware that the end of the film contains an off-screen murder that's concealed by the noise of the 14 July celebrations taking place outside the hotel, and particularly concealed by the fact that kids are letting off bangers. Calet was oddly preoccupied by 14 July, and even odder is that he died (of natural causes) on that very day.

*Dabit (1898–1936) had also written a very favourable review of La Belle Lurette in the La Nouvelle Revue Française.

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