Double Lives: François Sureau, Renaud Girard, Pierre Leroy
Blue on white… The yellow of time… The customs checkpoints of chance like doors open to the sky… I discovered François Sureau in Le Point a quarter-century ago when he published, under the guidance of Jean Schmitt, then the magazine’s editor, a report on the Balkans that appeared a short time before my own first voyage to Sarajevo.
I encounter him again today with his strange new book — Sur les bords de tout(On the Edges of Everything, from Gallimard) — half-poem and half-story recalling frightened civilians having sex to keep warm in the basements of bombed out buildings, snipers alert to the slightest sign of life, victims never properly buried, and a Europe beginning to collapse under the weight of its acts of desertion and cowardice. What remains of a city when no one any longer thinks to tell its story? What remains of Sureau’s Lieutenant Passavant des Baleines except the vague legend of which from book to book, and in this new book more than ever, the author has striven at once to give evidence and to erase all traces?
And who is this writer who, over the course of thirty years, has moved from a youthful novelistic art that charmed the old guard of the Académie Française to a taste for evangelical mysteries, long tales of asceticism, or, as here, epics without an odyssey.
Whatever the answer, few contemporary writers seem to have had as many lives as Sureau. A lawyer in one. An officer of the foreign legion in another. Founder, in a third, of a refugee welcome center in France. In still another a student of spiritual struggles and the lives of saints. And now this enigmatic new effort in the tradition of Cendrars, but a Cendrars who has been exposed to Pierre Schoendoerffer’s Le crabe-tambour (Drummer Crab) and Gottfried Benn’s Double Life.
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Another aficionado and practitioner of the double life is Renaud Girard, my “little comrade,” as the expression was in the folklore of the Ecole Normale, of which he and I are two irregular graduates.
In the first of his two existences, he wears the get up of sarcastic dandy as he lectures everyone of France’s ministers of foreign affairs over a period of thirty years; wows regulars at the major conferences organized by Le Figaro with his strategic geopolitics; and, in his new book, Le monde en guerre (The World at War, Carnets Nord/Montparnasse), holds forth on the “humiliation of Russia,” the “traps” of the intervention in Libya, and the “new American hegemony.”
In the second life, by contrast, he is the great reporter for the same paper, the scholar of mass graves, the technical expert on every coup d’état on the planet, a man whose taste for adventure, intuition about troops and terrain, sense of time without history, boldness, and lofty disdain for danger (which I always thought he discounted almost entirely, believing that it somehow did not apply to him) could teach a few things to most of his colleagues, including those working for the English-speaking press.
So who is this man, exactly? Is he, drawing on the first of those two lives, a sort of Barrès who, believing that one cannot chase wars all day, would spend his afternoons at the Cercle Interallié? Or is he, drawing from the second life, like a James Brooke who lost his Sarawak kingdom but had the time to read The Man Who Would Be King, Lord Jim, and the work by Jacques Rivière that marked (well before Roger Stéphane) the birth of the modern adventurer.
Scholar and adventurer, technocrat and foot soldier of truth: the mixture is uncommon.
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And then, living “squared,” so to speak, there is Pierre Leroy. Insiders know the very discreet head of a global communications group whose financial results are hot news on the CAC 40. Lovers of literature, who are insiders of another sort, will soon have a chance to discover, thanks to a large exhibition of Leroy’s literary trophies that will run at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal from April 21 through May 24, the provocative collector of Philippe Chéry’s original drawing for the frontispiece of Sade’s Justine, of letters to Napoleon’s minister of police, Joseph Fouché, demanding the release of the only modern writer to have spent most of his life in prison for the crime of debauchery, and an epistle from Sade to his wife who had just asked him to have her “dirty old laundry” sprung from the Bastille.
So, again, who is this “time traveler” whose “very well informed pessimism” Philippe Sollers describes in his fine preface to the catalogue of the exhibition? How does this unpredictable but scrupulous bibliophile, who one suspects would be ready to walk into hell for this manuscript by Albert Camus, that handwritten letter from Diderot, or the last bill Freud sent to Mahler’s family (the day after the composer’s death!), square with the former lieutenant of Jean-Luc Lagardère who rose, upon the latter’s death, to run his empire?
Is it once again the classic story of the adventurer compensating for whatever is alienating (that is, whatever is subject to the whim of others) in the respectable part of his life? Or is it, rather, the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Wakefield, who needed a normal life if not to conceal then at least to cool the devouring aspect of his true passion? Or, what amounts to the same thing, that of Georges Bataille atoning in the medals room of the Bibliothèque Nationale for the crime of having written Histoire de l’oeil (Story of the Eye) and Madame Edwarda?
Another way of being yourself while being another. Or of living a blend of several lives simultaneously, as the Pythagoreans aspired to do.
Do not miss this exhibition at the Arsenal!
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy