In the last twelve months I’ve discovered the French author Henri Calet. My friend Mr. Seagull gave me a copy of Les Grandes Largeurs and at the wonderful Festival des troquets last year, after a reading of Calet’s work, I bought a copy of Le tout sur le tout. It seems that Calet is almost unknown in the English-speaking world: he has no English Wikipedia entry, and no translations are in print. (Doing an image search I did find, amusingly, a few of his books in lurid covers from the 1950s). This is certainly a shame because Le tout sur le tout is certainly one of my favourite books about Paris. Calet, with contemporaries Jacques Yonnet and Bob Girard wrote about paris populaire, the life of ordinary people instead of film stars and politicians.
Le Tout sur le tout is a strange book: it is neither autobiography or novel. Calet’s own life was incredibly rich and chaotic. Born to an anarchist father, he ceaselessly changed job and apartment. Spectacularly, in 1930 he robbed the safe at his workplace in order to help pay for a horse-racing obsession. He fled to Montevideo, and it was actually during this escapade that the name ‘Henri Calet’ first appeared, on a false passport. The name he was born with was in fact Raymond-Théodore Barthelmess. After much wandering he returned to Paris in the 1940s, and it was then that his literary and journalistic career really started.
But there is none of this in Le Tout sur le tout. Calet writes about his impossibly impoverished childhood and then his return to Paris after the war. I asked a friend who knows a lot about Paris if he had read the book and he said, it’s a book for Parisians, and indeed that is the case. Calet describes in detail the houses, streets and buildings he lived in and remembered, many of which are vanished today. But the streets are still there. In particular, Calet writes about the 14eme arr., this part of town here where I live, and how it was in the years immediately after the war. This part of the book has a melancholic, shocked, feeling to it, and you realise how much history and past a city like Paris can have, most of which has vanished with the people who lived with it. Calet certainly feels this, writing in particular about a Jewish girl he knew who was deported by the Vichy government.
In the Grand Largeurs he writes about the swings and roundabouts behind the 14eme’s town hall. But before those swings and roundabouts were there, in the 1920s, a man used to come from the countryside with his goats and poneys and offered rides to children. Or the fact that the large and noisy avenue du Général Leclerc (which used to be avenue d’Orleans) before the war was once a long permanent market with stalls and stands. After the war, everything vanished, and to Calet it seemed strangely empty and deserted.
Calet’s father is a hard-line anarchist, and changes jobs incessantly, usually either after picking a fight with the management or customers or provoking strikes by organising the other workers. He is fired from serving ice-cream after spitting in the cones, because after all, ice-cream is for the bourgeois, right? This leads to a continual quest to find money to live, and the stories of pre-war poverty have an almost Irish quality of comedy and tragedy about them. There are many wonderful stories. Here’s my rough translation of one passage:
Another time, Petrus made fake two-franc coins in a room next to ours. But his work was amateurish: his coins blackened almost immediately. My Father’s job was to pass on the money, splitting the proceeds with his friend. But it wasn’t easy: he could only get rid of Petrus’ coins at dusk, in the short space of time when then shopkeepers hadn’t yet turned on the gas lighting.
And the melancholy lives with the comedy. In Calet’s time each year there was a celebration of life in the quartier, la Fete de la Lion. Calet writes that all he’d like in life is to stay in the 14eme and end his days at the retirement home on the avenue du Gereral Le Clerc, sitting outside on the pavement with them to watch the Fete du Lion. But it was not to be, he was dead only a few years after he finished Le Tout sur le tout.
Amongst the last words Calet wrote were the following:
« C’est sur la peau de mon cœur que l’on trouverait des rides. Je suis déjà un peu parti, absent. Faites comme si je n’étais pas là. Ma voix ne porte plus très loin. Mourir sans savoir ce qu’est la mort, ni la vie. Il faut se quitter déjà ? Ne me secouez pas. Je suis plein de larmes. »
or in my rough translation:
“My heart has wrinkles. I’m already a little gone, absent. Pretend I’m not there. My voice doesn’t carry very far. To die without knowing what is death or life. Already time to leave? Don’t shake me. I am full of tears. “
Calet has undergone a resurgence in popularity in recent years here in France. A new biography of his life is being planned. Perhaps it’s time to publish his books again in English?