This is the biography my grandfather wrote at his publisher's behest. It was published in various collections; I transcribed and translated this from the original French, with the help of my mother. Explanatory links for some phrases and references are my version of footnotes.
There are times when to write one’s biography becomes difficult, not to say awkward. Difficult, because one would not know how to speak of a future that is somewhat limited; awkward, because the past to which one turns has nothing that holds the attention. It is always a little depressing to realize that one is, all things considered, an ordinary man. I have reached this age, and that is why the confidences requested by my editor are likely to resemble an auto-criticism or a brotherly swipe that, on-demand, I would inflict upon myself. Enfin, since it must be, let’s get on with it…
I was born before the First World War, of an Ardéchois papa and a Grenobloise maman in Saint-Étienne, in the Loire department, one of the ugliest towns in the world, but in the grip of one of the most beautiful sceneries in the world. In an age when childhood illnesses exercised devastation among my contemporaries, I crossed cheerfully all the traps set before my steps, so much so that when the civilization of the XIXth century ended in the charnel-houses of 1914, I was a solid child who remembers that fabulous era as one of an immense calm only troubled by the pizzicatos, the horse hooves of the hansom cabs, crossed with the light scent of “Cuir de Russie” and pregnant with the smell of white bread. I was therefore one of those kids who learned morning after morning of the death of a father, the death of a brother, the wounding of an uncle or of a cousin, and who led their games in the shadow of the black-veiled women who watched over them.
Adolescence more or less foolish, like all adolescences, then the spectre first distant then each month closing in of the bachot. I lived in Nice at that time… A Nice where one tasted a marvellous joie de vivre… A Nice which has vanished with our youth. Le bachot, then the departure for Marseille in order to prepare the PCB that was to open for me the doors to the Faculty of Medicine.
My father – who had reared me in the conviction that I would recapture Alsace and the Lorraine – always resented a little that he had had to take care of that task in my place. He saw me as an officer. Fortunately, a complete and redhibitory inability to go beyond the stage of long division without decimal places, saved me from Saint-Cyr. It was at this point that began to manifest itself that long incompatibility between the army and myself, which was to cause me to suffer a thousand vexations on the part of the military, whenever I had dealings with them. The author of my days, obstinate to envisage me in the uniform, obliged me to prepare for the École de Santé Militaire of Lyon. But a serious incident intervened at this point to orientate in a different direction my student life: I was shamefully expelled from the Medical Faculty following a chahut where I let myself go in an attempt to forget the irrepressible horror that inspired in me the dissection of cadavers and the placements in the hospital.
No longer able to become a physician, nor a medical officer, I guided myself – still against my inclinations – towards the natural sciences. Licence, higher education diploma, the usual path, then the nomination as an assistant teacher at the Lycée Henri-IV in Paris, to prepare the agrégation. This was taking place around 1932, I believe. It is then that I made two capital encounters: Alain, who taught me to despise honours, and Charles Dullin, who taught me not to worry about success. The former taught me to think, the latter to dream. I retain for each of them a gratitude that will only end with my self.
Despite having delayed it until the extreme limits permitted by the law, it was still necessary for me to accomplish my national service. I did it at Saint-Cloud in a service that was terribly scientific in which I never understood the first thing, any more than understood anything whatsoever about it my junior and friend Paul Guth, who in my company savoured the military servitude in an army that was encrusted in the past, and where the Adjutant Flick reigned still as undisputed master. To add to my misfortune, I had the privilege to endure the 6 February 1934 and was half-killed the following day – as an officer of the law – by an Algerian who had the bizarre idea of nicking my flintlock. I terminated my time of service under the flag as a simple soldier and the memory of innumerable night duty – that despite all the years that have passed and contrary to my contemporaries who between rounds of apéritifs sigh: those were the days! – I do not recall with pleasure.
Rejoining the university, I took without conviction my preparation for the aggregation, but a seven-hour written examination on fossilized pachyderms that were no longer mammoths but not yet elephants removed from me any hope of ending in the shoes of a professor. Far from despairing, I congratulated myself on the adventure and threw myself into theatre, painting myself beautiful illusions as to the years that were to follow. It was failing to account for a certain Hitler…
Despite being in the front-lines of the French army, I was lucky not to be taken prisoner and after bloody tribulations, having left for Berlin, I found myself in Lourdes. A miracle of sorts.
I made my debut as a dramatic author in Geneva, in the Plainpalais communual hall, where my old friend Pierre Valde staged my Aller sans retour. We fell together under the prejudices of bigots! At least, it was with this conviction that I licked my wounded self-esteem… Then, during the course of the years that followed, I was played without great success by Marcel Herrand at the Théatre des Mathurins, where a young actor who was beginning to make a name for himself took the leading part in my play. He was called François Périer. Then my Cristobal was staged at the Theatre Gaston Baty-Montparnasse and my Annette et la chasse aux papillons at the jeune Colombier. On the novels front, I missed out on the Prix Renaudot by one vote, and after a second book published at Gallimard, I gave up, not being of a stubborn temperament.
The Liberation had transformed me into a provincial journalist, and in this I came back to the paternal career, eternal return… Cinema brought me back to Paris. About fifteen films, fortunately forgotten. Resigned to no longer attempting to strike my contemporaries to admiration, I lived in the country with my dogs, my cats, my birds, having taken Candide for a role model, when fortune brought me to meet my chance, offering me in this way a revenge in which I had no longer any faith in. Chance – who no doubt wished to be forgiven for having snubbed me for so long – allowed me to create the humorous detective novel.
One beautiful morning (we are in 1954 or 1955) Destiny knocks on my front door in the person of a postman, who hands me a mysterious parcel. It is a manuscript of a detective novel. The author, one of my long-standing friends, lives in the provinces. Not knowing to which publisher to dispatch his manuscript to, he had the thought that I would be willing to take care of the matter. I find myself well embarrassed - I am ignorant of just about everything to do with detective novel publishing houses! I take advice from around me. The Librairie des Champs Élysées is pointed out to me. I take myself there, and present the manuscript to Albert Pigasse, the founder of the celebrated collection “Le Masque”. He accepts it, reads it and returns to me a few days later. “It is unpublishable!” he declares to me frankly. He proceeds to expose the literary and technical reasons that explain his refusal. I am not surprised. I don’t find very successful this first attempt of my provincial friend either. In turn, I emit a few particularly pertinent criticisms and explain to M. Pigasse how, in my opinion, the subject ought to have been treated. So much so, that the Director of “Le Masque” comes to ask me why I myself do not give it a try. First lukewarm, I end up taking up the challenge. And in 1957, “Le Masque” publishes my first detective novel: Elle avait trop de mémoire.
And now the score: the half-century passed, of all that I have brought to fruition, of what am I most proud? Of my Prix du Roman d’Aventures no doubt, but also of having been elected President of the international federation of the gastronomic and oenocological press. My hobby? Cooking. The place where I feel most at ease? My cellar. Distinguishing marks: after over thirty years dedicated to literature, I received the Order of the Mérite Agricole.
Perhaps those who read this biography will ask themselves what I look like. Let it suffice that they be aware that I weighed nine pounds when I came into this world, and that today I count one hundred and ninety eight more. I am of a race that “profits” and on the stage the part of Falstaff would suit me better than that of Romeo.
Published in early 1966