31 January 2016

Thierry Séchan: Le Roman de Renaud (1988)

Le Roman de Renaud is written by the singer Renaud's elder brother Thierry Séchan, who understandably writes 'FIN'at the end, although the whole book is full of comments by Renaud himself reproduced in his original handwriting, and after 'FIN' he even more understandably suggests that Thierry ought to have instead written 'À SUIVRE', ('To be continued'): the book ends in 1988, and there were many more years of Renaud to follow, and indeed his brother published another Roman de Renaud in 2006. And after a number of years without any new releases Renaud returns this spring with a new album called 'Toujours debout' ('Still Standing'), the title of which defiantly indicates Renaud's comeback, and the already released eponymous single of which is a harsh stab at all the 'arseholes' ('trous du cul') and 'fuckers' ('enfoirés') who said he was finished.

On his paternal side Renaud comes from a line of writers: his grandfather Louis Séchan (1882–1968) was a Hellenist who wrote a number of books and taught at the Université de Paris, his father Olivier Séchan (1911–2006) wrote novels and children's books and his brother Thierry (born 1949) is a writer and journalist. Renaud's daughter Lolita is also a writer of children's books.

I'm uncertain of Renaud's present relations with Thierry Séchan because there has been a serious rift, although obviously that was many years after this book was written. The 'Not to be borrowed' mark on the cover was originally put there by staff at Leeds University Library (Music section), UK, where it was shelved before being sold: it bears no signs of being read, and it would rather surprise me if many people at the university had heard of Renaud, let alone understood him – his hallmark is many expressions of (sometimes obscure, even self-invented) slang, and even young French people have had trouble understanding some of the things he says. So it's not for nothing that he's been included (honoured, in fact) in the Petit Robert dictionary.

Thierry Séchan's book traces he and his brother's Parisian roots in the 14e arrondissement and the Montrouge area, the familial cultural mix – staunch middle class on the paternal side, staunch working-class on the maternal side: Renaud wrote a song about his coalminer grandfather Oscar in the song of the same name – gives an explanation of many of the songs, and concludes that Renaud is still a person who has never grown up.

This idea of eternal youth is evidently still present in Renaud's latest single, and has certainly still been there throughout his musical career, and can perhaps be said to be his main strength. It was recognised by the equally ageless (and at the time sixty-year-old) writer Frédéric Dard (1921–2000) (alias San-Antonio); it's in France's favourite song Mistral Gagnant (a former confectionery) which the video clip shows Renaud singing to Lolita – isn't parenthood very much a re-visitation of childhood? As people age they generally become more conservative, more resigned, but Renaud? Never!

The anarchism has nuanced, OK, but it's very much still there, as are the insults to the forces that govern us, the faceless, moronic nonentities that would have us follow them into non-life, into accepting their mindless violence, their supremely arrogant theft from the public, their conning the public that we live in a free world, live in a democracy, which is so much hideous bullshit, and which Renaud understood and still understands. Renaud tried to believe, supported Mitterand until he realised he was playing the same war game as the others, and he adapted Vian's 'Le Deserteur' to the times, inviting the president to smoke a pétard (joint) with him, the pipe of peace.

Going beyond the time of the book now, 'Dans le jungle' ('In the Jungle') isn't about the mess that is Calais, but about the kidnapping of the Franco-Columbian ecologist politician Ingrid Betancourt (between 2002 and 2008): this was by Marxist guerrillas, but was in no way supported by the always left-thinking Renaud because he believes in freedom and the kidnapping itself, and the fact that the group FARC was also involved in drug trafficking, made this an obscenity.

Coming back to the time of Le Roman de Renaud, and of course back into international politics, it is heart-warming to be reminded of Renaud's 'Miss Maggie', a song which is a celebration of women throughout the world because they aren't violent, don't declare war, they are civilised human beings: with the exception, of course, of Margaret Thatcher. Yes, this is an important song full of delicious humour: how could I have forgotten to include it in my list of anti-Thatcher songs?

There are many things in this book that testify not only to the importance of Renaud as a French singer, but to the importance of his words to the world. An equal to Brassens, or Brel, or Ferré? Yes, definitely.

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