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I am always embarrassed when I am confined in a small space, and never more than when this space is shared with a lady I don’t know. It’s my size, you see, I can’t shrink and I am a big man, not fat mind you, but just huge, tall and square…
So that day as the lift stopped, the doors opened and she walked in, all glamour and wonderful scent, I tried to smile and make myself as inconspicuous as I could, and I felt her smile all over my frame, top down. She asked me to press the key to the 21st floor. Which I did.
The lift stops at my floor, no 14. I smiled again and as I was stepping out she said: “Why don’t you follow me to my floor?” Taken aback I replied politely: “How may I help you Madame?” – “Oh, nothing you should worry about”, she said with a wolfish grin, “let me introduce myself: Laura King, literary agent… I am pleased to meet you Mr Dupuis.” I thought of the badge on my lapel. We shook hands as the lift restarted its climb.
So I met my agent. The rest is my little story.
Your childhood, the poignant poetry of the last decade of the dying 19th century, all the hopes that died in the tranchées, and yet, what was reborn, the talent, the unlimited thirst for renewal, then your courage in the face of evil, your gift of forgiveness, and unredeemed love: there is so much, for us, to learn from your life**, from your work.
You wrote: “Any family, any clan, any school shape those ‘words’, and those familiar phrases, loaded with meaning, which they keep secret for the stranger.”
How well you understood what laid ahead for literature: the tyranny of genres, the dominating influence of corporate interests, the deluded politics, and yet you predicted its survival, its triumph over stupidity.
As you rested, wounded, at the end of WWI, you wrote “Le guerrier appliqué” – which I chose to translate as “The thoughtful warrior”: A friend of yours much later would then describe* you as “L’écrivain appliqué” – the thoughtful writer, and in your charmed writing we find inspiration.
* Maurice Toesca: “Jean Paulhan, l’ écrivain appliqué” (Éditions Variétés, 1948)
** Frédéric Badré: “Paulhan, le juste” (Éditions Grasset, 1996)
The quote is from Jean Paulhan, “Les Fleurs de Tarbes” – “Toute famille, tout clan, toute école forme ces ‘mots’, et ces locutions familières, qu’elle charge d’un sens, secret pour l’étranger.”
I admire him, he is the father, the imperious maître, perhaps the last of the Renaissance men. And you loved him, you loved him beyond your life, and for him you wrote the story. He wrote: the most fearsome love letter a man ever received; he knew, and he wanted that letter to be known.
You, pliant, at his feet, the loyal woman to your last breath, you obliged, for our pleasure.
Am I jealous? How could I be: I was then that small boy, who was learning to read, who was dreaming, not big enough yet to be a soldier.
Much later, it would be my turn to read the letter, and, like him, my turn to go to war.
I cannot be jealous of a father, I wish only I could remember you through his eyes, for now, it is my turn to love you.
RD – You say somewhere, about a man in a bar – it’s in the preface to Retour à Roissy – [Une Fille Amoureuse] a man of your age says: “Have you seen that man, in his fifties, how good he looks, I don’t understand that women are only interested in guys in their thirties.” Or something to that effect. And you did not tell him, but you thought: of course it is that type of men they are interested in. Why?
PR – I don’t know, one always looks for a father.
RD - So, one has practically always sought to make love to one’s father?
PR – Ah yes, surely, and at the same time without doing it.
RD - Without doing it? Incest exists.
PR – Oh, why not? Brothers and sisters who love each other, that must be a delight. And I read once a love story between father and daughter which impressed and troubled me, from a mediocre writer though, Claude Farrère. And you have not to have known any country doctor to ignore fathers making their daughters pregnant, it’s not that rare.
RD - You loved your father very much?
PR – I loved him much, and admired him a lot.
PR - Was he someone who kissed you, took you in his arms?
PR – Yes, of course.
RD - So there was some sensuality between you?
PR – Oh yes. He was a man who adored women, who was with women very kind and generous, not materially, for he was penniless, but the generosity of the heart and devotion! He was marvellous.
RD – He really listened to them?
PR – He was very attentive, very impassioned, very convincing. He was not handsome, short and thick, with a round head, stocky, sturdy, easily angered, a fighter. And me too incidentally, I don’t look the part, but as a child I was always fighting.
RD - You were a gang leader?
PR – Yes, I always had gangs when I was young.
RD - You ran fast?
PR – Very. I was a middle distance runner.
RD - Were you a sporting type otherwise?
PR – Only for running and a little tennis.
RD - You had a taste for competition in sport?
PR – No, not that much. To achieve a good time, that was all. Competition did not interest me. Only in the class room. If I was not first or second I went mad.
RD - And you were first?
PR – Sometime.
RD - What religion were you brought up in?
PR – It’s a bit of a funny story. I had to be a catholic since the majority in France is catholic and it’s easier. Such was my mother’s view. My father would rather had me as a protestant. So, nothing was decided, but I was left with my father’s mum who was from Brittany, and she did not hesitate: catholic and Bretonne, she sent me to catechism, without telling anyone, for it was scandalous I was not baptised. One never admitted it, and when I came to the age of my private communion, seven year-old, she managed for me not to do it somehow. Then, at eight and then nine there had to be a solution. That was during the 1914 war [WW1]. She finally admitted I was not baptised. Scandal, horror, abomination. I was told, I had to be told since she could not show a baptism certificate, and hence could not do my first communion. I had already confessed I don’t know how many times, had followed mass with passion, the month of Mary, I was very pious, everything one can imagine at that age, and suddenly, like a strike of lightning in a clear sky, I learned I wasn’t baptised. Do you know what it felt like? This was very funny. I was going to a college then, a state college – the town was too small to have a lycée [high school]. There were interns and sometime one sat at the interns’ s desks. I had lifted the top of one of the desks and found some beautiful writing paper, and I had stolen one sheet and an envelop. I must have committed other crimes in my long life, if none other than against love and friendship, and yet remorse is pursuing me about that sheet of paper and envelope, real remorse; and all I saw in the fact I was not baptised and I was going to be, was that my sins were going to be erased without having to confess I had stolen. And do you know why I did not want to confess? It was not for the shame of the story, not at all, but because I would be told to replace the paper and I no longer had it.
RD - What did you do with it?
PR – I can’t remember. But you have to admit it’s a weird story. Strange child’s reaction. So, I did my first communion alone, no white gown, almost in hiding (already clandestine). The same day, christening and first communion, with just my mother there, very annoyed she was, who found that very irritating, who could have done without it, and me too in a way, part from the erasure. That’ s it.
RD - So you did not admit the theft in confession?
PR – It was erased, I no longer had to say anything!
RD - You have noted the proportions that in our mind certain faults take, the disproportionate importance, the excessive remorse that peccadillos leave with us.
PR – Peccadillos yes.
RD - Why is that?
PR – Its weird, I don’t know. For me it was a serious thing. I still see the sheet of paper. It must have been light blue or grey.
RD – Was it pretty?
PR – It was very pretty, with a doubled envelope. I have never seen any as beautiful.
RD - A man I know well tried once to explain to me how much self-control, and distance, add to the practice of eroticism according to him. For example, to decide one month ahead to execute on such a day, on such hour, an act of debauchery, as they say, that one would in general execute only in a state of strong excitement. And thus to do it, almost inevitably, at what everyone would call a bad time. On order, and from cold.
PR – It’s the cold gaze Sade talks about. “He stared at me with the cold gaze of the true libertine.”
RD - I am not sure I was then a good pupil. I am not incapable of premeditation, but coldness is not my forte. But we were talking of writing…
PR – Yes, I had much read the minor erotic writers of the 18th century, who contrary to the 17th century ones, are extraordinarily decent in their expression. Crébillon, Les Hasards du coin du feu, it’s an exquisite piece and perfectly decent, whereas if you read Malherbe, his erotic writing is abominable in the terms. Les Priapées, it’s horrible!
RD - Ronsard’s erotic pieces are not better. I believe it’s also due to the epoch’s vocabulary which was very crude.
PR – The epoch’s vocabulary was the same in the 18th century. You find it, that vocabulary, just as crude in Casanova. It’s much cruder in Casanova than in Crébillon. It’s not that the vocabulary had changed, it’s because a concept of decency, precisely, had intervened. One can say anything, but one must say it decently. Otherwise it’s embarrassing, it’s gross, it’s vulgar. Mind you, I understand the utility of terms that are gross and vulgar, they have their value, their weight, their efficacy.
Why not the words one has placed on bugle’s soundings, the guards’s room songs, why not the limericks too, so funny and so gross? But for me, I was getting by better with decent terms.
RD - O does not like it when Sir Stephen talks about her in crude terms.
PR – No, it’s the thing that most humiliates her.
RD - But in fact she endures it, of course, as she endures the blows, the touching. She’s humiliated , but she accepts it, she seeks humiliation, so why not that one. Is it that for her, in her particular case, those words have the value, the efficacy you talked about, which is conceivable?
PR – Of course, but brutality in the terms, is another form of rape, a more subtle form.
RD - But you said it’s a humiliation; but why humiliation, it’s too much, it serves no purpose.
PR – Do you think so? O seeks destruction, and the deepest destruction is humiliation. One may kill someone, one must not humiliate her. One may execute a political enemy, but not insult him. I understand that one can execute someone when circumstances dictate, if one considers the person dangerous, to be got rid of. Kill him but don’t insult him, don’t torture him.
RD - On the other hand the death penalty does not appear to you unacceptable?
PR – No, there are things far worse than death.
RD - It’s certain, depriving someone of freedom being one of the most abominable things.
PR – Death, one always arrives there, and there are people, there are human beings for whom, alas, one can do nothing, and it is better for themselves and others, it is better if they are dead.
RD - So do you think that society should and can protect itself, precisely, by eliminating certain individuals?
PR – Without doubt, but one should not give oneself a good conscience for it.
RD – Well, now, one would rather give oneself a good conscience by not doing it.
PR – Let’s say that one does it when one cannot do otherwise. It’s a sad necessity, but one should not imagine it is justice, that is not true. It is obeisance, how to say that, to a need for self-protection, a reflex of self-defence, but one should not believe that is being fair. Justice, I don’t believe that exists. And yet it a thing I most believed in, that seemed to me essential. I foolishly believed, for a long time, in liberty and justice, I mean the possibility of liberty and justice. And I still feel injustice as a terrible thing. [Dominique Aury witnessed the horrors of the occupation of France, and then, at the Libération, the summary executions of collaborators, women shaven and paraded in the streets]
RD - When one is punished, when one punishes a child unjustly, it is atrocious, the child may not easily recover from it.
PR – I remember bearing a deep grudge against my mother for punishing me once when I lied to her. I had lied to protect her young maid who dated a “fiancé”, as she told me: “Please don’t tell Madame”, and I said no, I would not tell. But that wrench told my mother I don’t know what tale, and my mother said: “You see, you lied to me, you said you were there and you weren’t.” I did not say anything, I let myself be punished with such a violent feeling of injustice and despair that I ran away to drown myself. It was near the sea, on holiday. I never had the courage for a whole hour to get in the water. I went back home. I never forgot. You know, in the English education system, of old, there was almost a rule: if a child was punished – probably beaten – for a fault he did not commit, and one realised it. He was told that he had only to bear the injustice and the blows without complaint, that was the way to learn about life. So, I was learning.
RD - Did you feel a desire of revenge towards the maid?
PR – Not even. Since I promised to her not to say anything, I said nothing. She did, well, she spoke. What appeared dreadful to me was that my mother believed her rather than me.
RD - Your mother did not trust you.
PR – No.
RD - It’s very important for you that you are trusted?
PR – Yes, even when I don’t deserve it. I try though to deserve it.
RD - What is it in life that brings most pain, in your view? Injustice?
PR – Oh no! One gets used to injustice. No. But being separated from those one loves. One is in hell. I am not sure there is paradise, but I know there is hell. It’s separation.
RD – Have you been often separated from people you loved?
PR – For a very long time, yes, very often, and many times.
RD – You seem to be loyal to your word, your friends, your commitments.
PR – I don’t know. I try.
RD – But you don’t appear to have a concept of loyalty in love, of loving loyalty.
PR – No, this sounds absurd to me. I have been faithful to people I loved, never slept with another person when I was in love with someone. Sadly, by the way, I would have liked to have slept with someone else sometime, very often it happened to me to desire that and not do it because I had promised not to do it. It’s absurd to promise obeisance and loyalty.
RD - You never promised?
PR – Sometime. And kept my promise. But if I have been loyal, I am afraid I was never obedient.
RD - Yet for you, obedience is a beautiful thing.
PR – Yes, it is a beautiful thing.
RD - You praise its advantages in some cases, but not for you.
PR – No, I am not obedient.
RD - Do you like being obeyed?
PR – Not much. No, but I would be very obedient if I was in a military unit. Something entirely ridicule, that you don’t seem to appreciate, and it is very amusing you don’t see it, since for me it is evident, is that I suffer from a vexed military vocation. I like accepted discipline, the firm timetable, the chores. If I received an order in a unit, for example during the war, when I had something to do, when someone in the network told me to do it, I strictly complied. Meeting at such and such time, I was always there. [Dominique Aury joined the Résistance in 1942].
RD - The taste for uniform, is apparent in the way you dress.
PR – It makes life simpler.
RD - It is handing over one’s fate to other hands, as one hands over too heavy a load. It’s Lawrence [of Arabia] coming back as simple soldier in the army. A general once told me: “I have chosen to be a soldier, and obey, to be free.” But isn’ it a bit of a contradiction, your uniform, with the one you make O wear?
PR – Naturally.
RD - But clothing is very important in O’s story. Every detail of the clothes is chosen for its erotic value.
PR – Any garment can be erotic. The vast dominoes of masked balls, as much as the peplums with wet folds of antiquity. But there is a classical outfit (corset, suspenders, garters and black stockings), that is very troubling to wear. It’s a phantasm I no doubt share with many women. In the great erotic uniforms, there are also for me the 18th century dresses, with a long bust. If I was able to describe with so many details O’s outfits, it’s because I once studied the history of garments… I was fascinated by those long corseted dresses that pull up the breasts. Those skirts that prove that one can wear them without any underwear. The nuns at the convent where my mother studied, an order founded in the 18th century, wore that kind of garment, wide skirts, underskirts, nothing underneath, and when they climbed a staircase to higher floors, their little pupils were watching at the bottom to see the white naked thighs, and were laughing secretly. This scandalised my mother forever. The verb to truss was invented for those skirts…
RD - And it is also a most troubling word. But O’s uniform…
PR – O’s uniform is a sign of acknowledgement, as is the way she dresses. If you want, in this story of acknowledgement and of uniform, there is part of romanticism of the secrete society. But it is a masculine thing generally. It’s men who create secrete societies and I have long dreamed of those. So, during the war, the resistance networks, it was perfect.
RD - You belonged there.
PR – It was ideal. Moreover one risked something.
RD - Moreover you risked your life. Was that something that pleased you?
PR – That pleased me, yes, very much so.
RD - But it was with the goal to stop something.
PR – Ah, that was to have these people go. [The German occupier]
RD – You did not like them?
PR – It’s not that I did not like them. No, I did not like them, that’s understood, but they had no business here. They only had to go back home. It’s the Go Home principle, all simple. For example I am a passionate anglophile; not anglophile, anglomaniac. But if the English came over as occupiers, I would have only one idea, to kick them out. [Dominique spells out the position of many French right-wing nationalists, unless they were convinced fascists, who opted for résistance to the German occupation]
You receive a gift that is bittersweet and makes you nostalgic. What is it?
The City you knew
The love you lost
The love you found
Before darkness fell…
Photo: Bouquinistes, ©Joseph Jeiter, 1930
There is this light in the depth of darkness, that of all I don’t know about you, yet, this shining intimate part of you, so delicate, eternal, I seek to penetrate, through writing, and discovering the depth of you.
For you are alive for me, more than some living…
For, in your words, I discover part of me that has been hidden, concealed, waiting for the day…
When, by no accident, I will be ready to meet you.
Art: Clement Rosenthal: Untitled