Monday, May 15, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“LE FEU FOLLET” by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (first published in 1931; two English translations in the 1960s, one called The Fire Within, the other called Will o’ the Wisp)

            Last December, when I was visiting Paris, I indulged my usual habit of trawling second-hand bookshops, including the lockable book booths found on both sides of the Seine. It was in a Right Bank booth that I found a copy of a novel I had been wanting to read for some years, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s Le Feu Follet.  What’s more it was a first edition – an NRF (Nouvelle Revue Francaise) paperback published by Gallimard in 1931. But, costing me only a couple of euros, it certainly was not a copy of any great monetary value. It was simply a mass-produced paperback, with its rough 86-year-old pages turning brown with age, of which there are doubtless hundreds of identical copies still in circulation.

Pierre Eugene Drieu La Rochelle (1893-1945) is such a controversial writer, and so despised in many quarters, that, in case you know nothing about him, I will save comment on him until later in this notice.

Let’s begin by concentrating on this extraordinary novel itself.

First, an explanation of its title.

“Le feu follet” is the French term for the ignis fatuus – the drifting “false fire” that sometimes hangs over swamps, caused by rotting vegetation giving off methane gas. Apparently there were two rival English translations of this novel in the 1960s, neither of which I have seen. One translated the title robustly but inaccurately as The Fire Within. The other translated the title as Will o’ the Wisp. But unfortunately Will o’ the Wisp, while an accurate literal rendering of “le feu follet”, sounds rather silly and frivolous in English. Drieu La Rochelle gave the novel its title because he wanted to evoke the idea of moral and intellectual rot, like the fumes from a swamp.

Le Feu Follet is a novel about decadence, about drug addiction, about cultural anomie and finally about suicide. Specifically, it is about the last days in Paris of a drug-addict before he commits suicide. The novel is structured as a series of encounters the drug-addict has with other people, none of whom provide him with a convincing reason to live. Drieu La Rochelle was not himself a drug-addict or alcoholic. It is often pointed out that external details of the suicide of his protagonist, Alain Leroy, were based on the suicide of the surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut in 1929, who had often talked and written of suicide.

Alain Leroy is aged 30. He was in a teenage soldier in the First World War, but for the last ten years or so he has been living by sponging off wealthy American women as he feeds his drug habit. At the time the novel takes place, he is making his third attempt to detoxify. He was married to an American called Dorothy, with whom he lounged about the Cote d’Azur. In fact he is still officially married to Dorothy and is half hoping she will send him some money. But the novel opens with him sharing a bed in a seedy hotel with another American, Lydia, who has already been married and divorced twice. She clearly thinks of Alain as her piece of rough, her French gigolo. She declares on Page 17 (given that the novel is not divided into numbered chapters, I refer to the page numbers of the first edition):

 “J’aime bien ces sales hotels… ce sont les seuls endroits que je trouve intime dans le monde, parce que je n’y suis jamais qu’avec vous.”

I love these dirty hotels… they’re the only places on earth that I find intimate, because I’m never in them unless I’m with you.” (Pardon my clumsy translations in this notice.)

Lydia gives Alain a generous sum of money on condition that he dries out, joins her in New York, and marries her. Alain is non-committal. But he takes the money, knowing full well that he will eventually spend it on drugs.

Alain returns to the residential sanatorium outside Paris where Doctor Barbinais is attempting to dry him out. Alain is disgusted at other residents, whom he sees as being all neurotics, fanatics and monomaniacs, including the doctor’s wife. He is equally unimpressed, in a long conversation, by Doctor Barbinais’s attempts to reason him out of his addiction. He sees Doctor Barbinais as having interested motives in retaining him as paying patient and he tells the doctor frankly that he will probably return to taking heroin.

He goes back to Paris and the rest of novel is a series of conversational episodes as he visits various friends in the course of a long November evening.

Dubourg, an antiquarian married with two children, tries to persuade Alain that his life is worth living and that he is talented. But Alain is alienated from Dubourg’s comfy bourgeois life.

Leaving Dubourg he walks through the cold, wintry Paris night and hooks up with the old gang who supply him with drugs. As he watches a fashionable and foolish Englishman smoking opium with his old pals, Alain shoots up on heroin.

He moves on to the louche salon of a woman called Praline and drinks alcohol while Praline and her friends smoke opium and hashish. This group are completely into drugs as a recreational culture. They wax sardonic over Alain’s attempts to get himself clean. One of the group, Urcel, is a dandyish opium-smoker and aesthete, who claims that his habit is an enlightening mystical experience. (At this point I wonder if Drieu La Rochelle isn’t taking a smack at the dandyish Jean Cocteau, whose book Opium, Diary of a Cure was published in 1930, the year before Le Feu Follet.) Alain is unimpressed. He knows drug-taking is a physical dependence with diminishing returns in terms of the kick it gives.

Alain’s last social call is a dinner-date where very wealthy hedonists, Cyrille and Solange Lavaux, are hosting a party for a celebrated he-man explorer. Once again, Alain is uncomfortable among them, makes a remark that annoys the guest of honour, and departs. These fashionable people disgust him as much as the others he has met. He sees them as artificial poseurs. In a long conversation he admits that (much as he understands the physical beauty of the hostess Solange), he no longer takes real delight in women.

He stumbles back into the night streets, trolling through the shabby bars around Montmartre, pouring out his self-pity to Milou, a rough customer he has known through his drug connections. He has never been successful with women, he has never retained friends, people desert him….

This self-pity is all we are left with after all the ratiocination the novel has given us. Progressively, we have seen Alain’s mind reject the arguments of medicine (Doctor Barbinais), the lure of bourgeois comfort (Dubourg), the self-justifications of drug-taking aesthetes (Urcel and Praline), and the hedonism of the wealthy (the Lavaux couple and their guests).

Throughout the novel Alain has promised friends that he will see them the following day. Instead he goes back to his hotel room, sleeps, wakes in the morning, looks in the mirror, realises his life is one big nothingness and shoots himself.

On the most obvious level, Le Feu Follet is a novel about the pathology of drug addiction. In the section where Alain is interviewed by Dr Barbinais, there is a long, vivid account of Alain’s history of drug-taking, beginning when a few intoxicating sniffs of cocaine when he was a teenager; moving into habitual heavy drinking; then settling on heroin. Two previous attempts at detoxification are chronicled, with their awful withdrawal symptoms. Outside drugs, there is addictive, compulsive behaviour in other aspects of Alain’s life. He smokes three packets of cigarettes a day. He has so little control over the larger aspects of his life, that he is reduced to making order out of the smaller and more trivial aspects of life. For me, one of the saddest evidences of this pathetic compulsion to make order is the description of how he has set out hotel room:

Les choses sur la table et la cheminee etaient parfaitement ranges. Dans le cercle de plus en plus restraint ou il vivait, tout comptait. Sur la table il y avait des lettres, des factures classes en deux paquets. Puis, une pile de boites de cigarettes, une pile de boites d’allumettes. Un stylo. Un grand portefeuille a serrures. Sur la table de nuit, des romans policiers ou pornographiques, des illustres americains et des revues d’avant-garde. Sur la cheminee, deux objects: l’un, une mecanique tres subtile, un chronometre de platine partfaitement plat, l’autre, une affreuse petite statuette de platre coloree, d’une vulgarite atroce, achetee dans une foire, qu’il transpotrtait partout, et qui representait une femme nue. Il la disait jolie, mais il etait content qu’elle enlaidit sa vie.” (p.35)

The things on the table and mantelpiece were set out in a perfectly orderly fashion. Everything counted in the circle, closing more and more tightly, in which he lived. On the table there were letters, with bills organised into two bundles. Then a pile of cigarette packets and a pile of matchboxes. A pen. A big lockable briefcase. On the night table, detective novels and pornographic novels, American illustrated magazines and avant-garde reviews. On the mantelpiece, two things: one, a very subtle mechanism, a plate chronometer which was perfectly flat; the other, a ghastly little coloured-plaster statuette, of disgusting vulgarity, which he had bought at a flea-market and which he took with him wherever he went. It was of a naked woman. He said it was pretty, but he was happy that it made his life uglier.”

As drugs make Alain’s world more and more restricted, that world diminishes to the drug itself. As he finally rejects detoxification and goes back on the stuff, Alain reflects:

Il n’avait que la drogue, il n’y avait pas a essayer d’en sortir, le monde etait le drogue meme… Il remplit la seringue d’heroine, retroussa sa manche et se piqua.” (p.131)

He had only the drug. He didn’t have to try to free himself from it. The world was the drug itself… He filled the syringe with heroin, rolled back his sleeve and injected himself.”

There is clear evidence of the physical toll that drug abuse has taken on Alain. At the age of thirty, he every so often ruminates on how he is no longer the handsome young man, attractive to women, that he was just a few years before. His looks are going. Frequently he feels tiredness, lassitude, a loss of will. The reader often infers that he is prematurely losing sexual potency. He has difficulty rousing himself to make love to Lydia in the novel’s opening section. In talking to Dubourg he admits “je fais mal l’amour”. Visiting a bar he looks at the faces of bohemians he used to know and sees that, like him, they are suddenly all old and weary. He admits his dependency on women, not just in terms of money, but in emotional terms, like a little child who is not yet sexually active. At the Lavaux household, speaking to a third-person of the society beauty Solange Lavaux, he admits:

Je ne peux pas vouloir, je ne peux pas meme desirer. Par exemple, toutes les femmes qui sont ici, je ne peux pas les desirer, ells me font peur, peur. J’ai aussi peur devant les femmes qu’au front pendant la guerre. Par exemple, Solange, si je restais seul cinq minutes avec elle, eh bien, je me ferait rat, je disparaitrais dans le mur.” (p.186)

            “I not able to wish for anything, I not able even to desire anything. Look, for example, at all the women who are here. I am not able to desire them. I’m scared of them. Scared. I’m as scared when I face women as I was when I was at the front in the war. Take Solange. If I was with her for just five minutes I’d shrivel up like a little rat and disappear into the woodwork.”

            But is reproducing the pathology of drug-taking Drieu La Rochelle’s main purpose in this novel? Le Feu Follet represents, after all, a sick and decadent society as much as a sick and decadent Alain. This society and this individual are going nowhere – except to death. The novel never presents, as positive things, religious, philosophical or political alternatives to Alain’s self-destructiveness. It is, in effect, a nihilistic and decadent novel – and as perfect an expression of nihilism, or belief in absolutely nothing, as I have read.

Is Drieu La Rochelle endorsing this nihilism? I think not. I think he is simply analysing it, and seeing that it leaves no firm ground on which to stand.

So where can you positively go when you have seen your society and culture as decadent, and representative figures in your society as embracing nothingness?

To explain where Pierre Drieu La Rochelle himself went in the years after he wrote this novel will help to explain why he is so controversial a figure who is still loathed by many.

Like his fictional Alain Leroy, Drieu La Rochelle fought in the First World War and was three times seriously wounded. The war had a strong effect on him, leading him to distrust the delusions of military leadership and the officer class, while still seeing heroism in the soldier’s trade. I first encountered his writing when I read an English translation of his collection The Comedy of Charleroi (first published in French in 1934). It is a series of ironical short stories, based on Drieu La Rochelle’s own experiences, in which the French army at the front is depicted as playing a great, monstrous game, but a game in which men can become ennobled by their actions.

In the 1920s, as he wrote poems and novellas and political commentaries, Drieu La Rochelle did the things that would stereotypically be expected of a French intellectual of his generation. He mixed with Dadaists and Surrealists and Communists. Along with Andre Breton, he was one of the first to sign the Surrealist Manifesto. The Communist poet Louis Aragon was a pal. So was the left-wing novelist Andre Malraux. Like so many intellectuals of that era, Drieu La Rochelle saw parliamentary democracy as weak, corrupt, divided and incapable of providing good leadership. (The “revolving door” governments of the French Republic between the wars would have reinforced this view.) Politically, Drieu La Rochelle could have jumped either way, as both the extreme left (Communists) and the extreme right (Fascists) made the same criticisms of “bourgeois” democracy.

In the early 1930s, he was still writing articles decrying Hitler. But after the big Paris riots of February 1934 (when right-wing soldiers’ leagues took on the police and called for a Fascist-style government), Drieu La Rochelle turned right. In 1936 he joined Jacques Doriot’s militant French Fascist party the PPI. (Point of interest - Jacques Doriot had formerly been a rising star in the French Communist Party, a Communist mayor of the working-class Parisian suburb St Denis, and a Communist member of parliament – which shows how easily one extremism can become another.) Drieu La Rochelle spent some years editing Doriot’s Fascist magazine. During the German Occupation (1940-44), Drieu La Rochelle was an enthusiastic intellectual collaborator, writing articles in praise of Hitler. When Jean Paulhan, the left-wing editor of the prestigious literary magazine, the Nouvelle Revue Francaise (NRF), was unacceptable to the Nazi occupiers, Drieu La Rochelle took the magazine over and ensured that nothing appeared in it that would offend the German authorities.

Came the Liberation in 1944, and obviously Drieu La Rochelle was now a marked man. His protectors were gone, resisters were now routing out collaborators, and retribution was on the way. Aged 52, Drieu La Rochelle committed suicide early in 1945.

The situation was a little more complex than I have presented it here. Twice, Drieu La Rochelle protected Jean Paulhan, the displaced editor of the NRF, from arrest by the Gestapo. Paulhan survived the war, resumed editorship of the NRF and lived to a ripe old age. After the Liberation, Andre Malraux, now a Gaullist who had borne arms against the Nazis, sought to protect Drieu La Rochelle from arrest and possible execution. Thus do writers often look after one another, despite great political differences.

Even so, it should now be easy for you to see why Drieu La Rochelle, Fascist, collaborator and sometime admirer of Hitler, now has such a negative reputation.

How do I relate all this to the excellent analysis of nihilism that is Le Feu Follet? Simply thus. People who gaze into the deep well of nihilism often react by looking for something solid to cling to. I can imagine Drieu La Rochelle, after having depicted Alain Leroy and his world, seeking that something. Another person might have turned to religion or a programme of social justice. Drieu La Rochelle, being a materialist and an atheist, turned to the worship of power as an organizing force. He had not embraced nihilism  - as I said, he analysed it rather than celebrated it – but he looked at it long enough to himself be morally destroyed by it.

Curious footnote: Despite the opprobrium his life earned him, Drieu La Rochelle’s reputation revived a little some years after the Second World War. In 1961 Louis Malle, then one of the young nouvelle vague directors, made a well-received film version of Le Feu Follet (updated to the Paris of 1961), starring Maurice Ronet as Alain. Among other things, the film changes Alain’s addiction to alcoholism rather than heroin. Looking at clips of this film on Youtube, I would also have to say that the milieu Alain inhabits is more chic and less seedy than the milieu of much of the novel. Apparently the novel has also been adapted into other film versions. It has continued to be republished frequently. Some guides say Drieu La Rochelle’s best novel is Gilles (first published in 1938), also still in print, which I have not read. It is an account of how a young man learns to love the political Right, fights for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and embraces Fascism. The fact that these two titles still get praise must say something for Drieu La Rochelle’s literary skill. Subsequent to writing this notice, I was able to find on Youtube a very good French documentary comparing the three writers Drieu La Rochelle, Aragon, Malraux: D’une guerre a l’autre. I must warn you, however, that it has no English subtitles.

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