We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.
I write them letters.
Winner of four of France’s most prestigious literary prizes, Roger Grenier (September 19, 1919-November 8, 2017) is the author of more than forty books. He was also a journalist, television and film writer, radio presenter, and influential board member of the French publisher Gallimard. An intimate of Albert Camus who hired him to work on ”Combat,” Grenier was a member of the French Resistance who was active in the 1944 Liberation of Paris.
I see that you were born in 1919 and remained active until your death just a few months ago at age 98. I know that you were a longtime friend of Antoine Gallimard, but should not be confused with him, a crime of which Diane Charney was guilty (as the following tale will show).
This embarrassing story features my 1988 Paris interaction with you and Gallimard Press which I had believed was interested in publishing my study of André Pieyre de Mandiargues. When I showed up there for what I had thought would be my appointment with Antoine Gallimard, to whom I had originally written about my proposed project, his secretary seemed very surprised to see me. Her boss was out of town and there was no record of an appointment. Oops!
Then, when she called up to your office to try to sort out what had happened, we kind of figured it out. It seems that Gallimard had asked you to call me on his behalf at the home of my host family, the Mornière’s on Rue de Saint-Pétersbourg, (also formerly known as rue de Pétrograd and then as rue de Leningrad, before reverting back to Rue de Saint-Pétersbourg, as the politics in Russia changed: compliqué!) The phone connection had been poor during our long conversation, in the course of which we had discussed, among other things, Mandiargues’ long relationship with the Gallimards and the new company president's ongoing interest in him. But my appointment was to be with you, not Antoine Gallimard! (In general, I am somewhat allergic to talking on the phone in any language, and here's another example of where a letter would have been a far better way to communicate!)
It certainly wasn't the first time I had goofed in my relations with Men of Letters. As it turned out, you and I did have a nice meeting that day. We reminded ourselves of our mutual love of Pau in southwest France, a city where you had grown up and where I had taught for extended periods. You inscribed and gave me some of your novels, which I enjoyed--especially your 1965 bestseller, Le Palais d'hiver set in Pau, a city I loved so much that I expected to retire there. You seemed surprised that anyone would feel that way about your home town—especially an American teacher.
Many years later, by coincidence, while Alice Kaplan was still at my graduate school alma mater, Duke, and not yet French Department Chair at Yale, you and she visited the campus and gave a joint talk at Yale. She had translated your popular The Difficulty of Being a Dog, Palace of Books, and A Box of Photographs, and you had become friends. More than the actual content of your presentation, I enjoyed seeing the close rapport between you and Alice, a wonderful thing that can happen when an author and translator are particularly in tune with each other. Despite our age difference, Alice and I have been on the same traffic pattern a number of times. The world of French letters is not nearly as large as it seems when one is preparing for her doctoral exams. At your reading, I shyly reintroduced myself to you as the dunce to whom in Paris you had spoken and given your books, and you very kindly seemed to have forgotten the particular circumstances of our earlier meeting.
When I wrote my French Writing Partner, Jacqueline Raoul-Duval, that I would be writing you a letter, she had some lovely things to say about you. She said that you, “un homme d’une douceur exquise” (“a gentleman of exquisite gentleness”) regularly crossed paths with her every morning on Boulevard St.-Germain when she was headed to work. You were always accompanied by your beloved big, blond dog, Ulysse. Neither you nor he ever raised your voice, and you both had the same slightly sad, very kind look, a bit detached from the rest of the world. “Un homme délicieux qui savait tout sur tout, avec une grande légereté!” (“A lovely man who knew everything about everything, but who wears his erudition lightly.”)
She told me another charming story about you, a dog, and his French-speaking Japanese master, author of Une langue venue d’ailleurs and of a magnificent story about his dog, Mélodie. This author explains in his preface that one evening he was waiting for you at the Gallimard exit. He spoke to you about your Ulysse and gave you his manuscript about Mélodie. You said to him gently, “But I don’t speak Japanese,” to which he responded, “Oh, but it’s written in French!” You must have liked it, since you went on to publish it. It is a tribute to your keen editorial eye that Mélodie, chronique d’une passion by Akira Mizubayashi, which won major literary prizes in 2013 and 2014 was so well received. It’s going on my list. I already feel a kinship with the author, a university professor who teaches French to foreigners, who has an acute sensitivity to the presence of music in our lives, and who first came to France at the same age I did. Ensconced in my Ivy League bubble, I had never heard of the book, but already feel moved just from reading the excerpt where the author focuses in on the lacquer tea box that for 18 years has held some of his father’s ashes. He anticipates doing the same for Mélodie whom the reader will come to love as he does. I’m imagining what a pleasure it must be for an author like Mizubayashi to have you shepherd into print a book to which you were instinctively drawn. And kudos to the author for sensing correctly that in you he would find a kindred spirit!
Another author with whom you regularly crossed paths is your neighbor and close friend, Romain Gary, to whom I wrote recently. The June 6, 2014 article “Les femmes et les mythes de Romain Gary”
mentions that, at 7:30 AM, you and Gary often found yourselves on the same traffic pattern because you would be out walking Ulysse, and Gary would be out then because he was an insomniac. You loved him and were one of the few people in whom he could confide. What an odd couple you were—you so steady and discreet; he so flamboyant and vulnerable! Your preface to his “Le sens de ma vie,” the transcription of an interview accorded to Radio Canada just a few months before his suicide is, as is typical of you, a model of discretion.
In doing some belated research about you, I am seeing many other things we could have discussed, so I’m disappointed in myself for not having made the most of the time we spent together. I also wish I had gotten to read more of your books. I feel sure I would like The Palace of Books (Le palais des livres) with its questions about why we write that are enriched by your lifetime of engagement with books and authors, as an editor and trusted friend. In fact, you seem to have interesting things to say about several of my letter recipients—Balzac, Proust, and of course Camus on whom you wrote the book, “Camus et moi.” You said you consider him a brother (“to me, the man counts more than his work.”)
I admit I was initially uncertain about sending this letter to you, based as it was on an anecdote that highlights my own ignorance. But I’m learning that such self-consciousness is perhaps also a type of self-indulgence—an exaggeration of one’s sense of personal importance. (American Writer Josephine Humphrey cites “a quality that serves writers well: self-doubt so deep it is indistinguishable from vanity…” She says of her grandmother Neta, “she taught me to look at pictures of myself as if the person there were mysterious and significant.”) Having known you only in a limited context, I never would have guessed the extent of your connections to so many important literary figures. Although not a fan of John Guare’s 1990 prize-winning play “Six Degrees of Separation,” the concept of how closely linked one can be to others is definitely making itself felt in my letters. Who would have guessed that like Michel Butor, another of my letter recipients, you, too, had studied under Sorbonne philosopher Gaston Bachelard whom I only knew from having used as a reference his The Psychoanalyis of Fire? Then I’m reminded that Sartre cites this work in his Being and Nothingness. And when I look up Bachelard, I see staring back of me a bearded face that looks incredibly like that of Michel Butor in his later years. For me, this appreciation of interconnectedness has been an unexpected benefit of my letters, giving new meaning to my self-description as one who is comfortable being a small fish in a big pond.
I don’t want to tempt fate by saying that in your modest, unassuming way, you managed to maintain a productive life longer than every one of my letter recipients. Although my dream of giving you a copy of this book may not come to pass, I am grateful for this chance to write to you now.
P.S. This is a sad postscript in the very literal sense of that word. I will explain. I wrote the body of this letter to you in time to meet a 1 September 2016 publication deadline. You were then 96. Aware of your advanced age, and that you were one of the very few of my letter recipients still at work, I kept checking to see if you were still with us. As you know, there is often a delay getting things into print, and this letter is a case in point. Yet I took heart from the fact that the last time I checked, you were still on the job at Gallimard. That, however, was until today. So here I sit, reading several obituaries that tell me more about you, and how lucky I was to have met you more than once.
You who believed strongly in the role of chance and coincidence in your life might not think it strange that my late father, who is another of my letter recipients, would have been 98 right now. You died at 98 exactly one month after his October 8 birthday. My brother died four years ago on November 8, a day after you. From now on, I will be lighting a candle for you both at the same time.
The Telegraph titled their obituary about you, “Roger Grenier, Wrote ‘The Difficulty of Being a Dog,’” which they call “a charming meditation on the relationship between man and man’s best friend.” Never mind all of the prestigious literary prizes you won; somehow, this book that cites the influential role of dogs in the lives of a diverse group of men and women of letters, took precedence over your many other well-founded claims to distinction. As much as I love dogs (mine died just a month before you, and at a similar age), I am more interested in the strong bond between you and Camus. You said you owed him everything, that he made you into the journalist and writer you became.
I liked, however, that the Telegraph article reminded me of the importance to you of photography—that your parents were opticians and that you were all keen photographers, that your acquaintance with a young woman who had a Leica camera led to your being recruited by the Resistance, that your having a camera with you during the Liberation of Paris nearly got you executed on the spot, that you once had a job developing photos and being a projectionist in a cinema your parents bought.
The photographic lens also looms large in your 2010 Dans le secret d’une photo (A Box of Photographs, translated by Alice Kaplan), your 2007 Instantanés (Snapshots), your 2005 contribution to the collection of self-portraits, Traits et Portraits that ended up being an insightful portrait of your unforgettable mother, Andrélie, and your close contact with the photographer-writer Brassai. Your 2010 interview with Corinne Amar, “Roger Grenier: Portrait” details many aspects of your fascination with photography.
Most reviews of your Dans le secret d’une photo contain this evocative quote:
Si j'ouvre mes vieux albums, les compagnons d'autrefois, la plupart disparus, me regardent. C'est un plaisir un peu triste et puis, d'autres jours, un face-à-face avec le néant. Certains, certaines étaient jeunes et séduisants, vraiment beaux. Ils n'auront jamais été vieux. Au bout d'un moment, il est intolérable de se dire qu'ils sont dans une tombe, ou réduits en cendres. Je referme l'album. Devant ces photos d'autrefois, j'ai l'impression que le présent est un pays étranger. J'y vis en exil.
I don’t have what is surely Alice Kaplan’s superior translation at hand, so I will try my hand at it:
If I open my old albums, companions of times gone by, most of them deceased, gaze back at me. It's a rather sad pleasure and then, on other days, a face-to-face encounter with nothingness. Some male, some female, were young and alluring, truly beautiful. They will never have become old. After a while, it becomes intolerable for me to think that they are in a grave, or reduced to ashes. I shut the album. In the face of these photos of times past, I have the impression that the present is a foreign country. I live there in exile.
Your formative relationship with photography recalls the reflections on photography by another of my letter recipients, Roland Barthes, in his La Chambre Claire (Camera Lucida).
Of all the tributes I read about you in the wake of your death, the best is from the France Culture site’s “En Suivant Roger Grenier.”
It includes a series of recorded interviews with you from 1950, 1960, 1992, 2012, and 2015.
The apt headline that announces your death reads, “Roger Grenier, Incomparable témoin de la vie littéraire au XXe siècle” (“Roger Grenier, the Incomparable Witness to Twentieth-Century Literary Life”). Of all the things I heard you say on these precious podcasts, one in particular “spoke” to me. In discussing your affinity for Chekhov, you said, “it’s as if I knew him.” You call your prize-winning 1992 book about him, Regardez la neige qui tombe. Impressions de Tchekhov (Look at the Falling Snow), “un tableau pointilliste d’une relation intime” (“a Pointillist painting of an intimate relationship”). In speaking about your choice of the word “impressions” for the title of your book, you remind us that it is derived from the latin for what is “pressed in” or “imprinted.” The etymology of this word conveys the extent to which you felt deeply marked by Chekhov.
What you say next, however, gets at the heart of what I have been trying to do in my Letters to Men of Letters:
“Some people are often more at ease with the dead. Whether the dead be authors or others, one talks with them. (“On est souvent plus à l’aise avec des morts—qu’ils soient écrivains ou pas—on dialogue avec eux.”)
It’s as if you read my mind and understood completely what I would be trying to do in this book. Yet when we first met two decades ago, this project wasn’t even a gleam in my eye. How did you know? Maybe you’re not the only one for whom chance and coincidence are key?