18 January 2016

Jean-Paul Kauffmann: 31, allées Damour: Raymond Guérin 1905-1955 (2004)

'This anarchist, this permanent rebel, is in everyday life a man of order and habit.' Jean-Paul Kauffmann's sentence comes towards the end of his scholarly, 350-page biography of Raymond Guérin, one of the most famous of the forgotten – in fact never really ever known – French writers. And yet it could serve as an introduction to this chameleon-like author. On the one hand Kauffman doesn't have an easy job with a man so little known, although on the other almost everything he discovers is new and his task was much facilitated by the archive at the Bibliothèque Jacques Doucet near the Panthéon.

I was a little reminded of my research on the artist and would-be writer Karl Salsbury Wood, who (this was wartime England) scribbled his findings on wallpaper-backed diaries, fastidiously (manically?) recording details of every (half)penny spent on his windmill tours. But Guérin seems to have been even more obsessive, with his bills, restaurant napkins, etc, included in the archival boxes.

Kauffmann doesn't only include the details of the Raymond Guérin archive but also much of himself, his conversations with his research neighbour who's looking into Paul Éluard, the interest of Juliette Bordessoule more in Kauffmann's own captivity than Guérin's, the girl in the lift to 31 allées Damour (Bordeaux) who thinks the 'great writer' associated with the building is not Guérin (well, who he?) but Montesquieu, on so on.

This is a wonderfully meticulous, obsessive book about a meticulous, obsessive person, a book to return to and discover amazing things about an amazing person. But only for some of us, of course, as the majority of committed readers will not, for instance, be interested in Monsieur Hermès (probably named after a brand of exercise book) and his masturbatory activities in L'Apprenti, or Hermès again in the 800-page 'follow-up' Parmi tant d'autres feux..., let alone the 500-page Les Poulpes in which Guérin changes Hermès's name to le Grand Dab, and which ends the trilogy Ébauche d'une Mythologie de la Réalité (lit. 'Sketch of a Mythology of Reality'). Pretentious? I should hope so: aren't James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf et al gloriously pretentious? Of course, so what's wrong with that? Readable? Probably not for most, but then I specialise in reading unreadable books, and Guérin sounds deliciously unreadable.

I've only read Zobain so far (my review is linked below), but I shall certainly be back for more. Fascinatingly, Kauffmann discovers that all correspondence with Denise Montauriol (Guérin's first wife) has been removed from the archive, and asks if Juliette Bordessoule is responsible for this: tantalizingly, there's later a photo of the elderly woman on one of the plates between pages 56 and 57, although the reader has to plough though about two thirds of this biography before he or she can be certain that Bordessoule is the heir to Guérin's estate. Kauffmann, then, wouldn't have known (as Finitude's Zobain Afterword makes clear) that Denise (or Denyse) complained bitterly to Guérin in more than one letter that her problem was that he hadn't made her 'a woman', and furthermore hadn't told his mother the 'real' reason for the divorce.

Guérin may well have appeared very pleasant to many other people, although he could be very difficult too. After a letter savagely criticising Gaston Gallimard for the 'pittance' he received from him, Gallimard replied: 'You are too egocentric, too self-oriented to conceive of an outside world. Your arrogance blinds you, and if you were a normal man you wouldn't have this totally unjustifiable persecution complex, which in my eyes excuses you. However, this egotism, this ingratitude, which has perhaps been the driving force of your publications, is probably what will limit you in the future'. But amazingly, Gallimard went on to meet many of Guérin's demands.

How can I criticise this astonishing book? There's not enough sex?

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