Monday, June 15, 2020

From bomber to writer

‘Another four years to say “less than thirty years old”. Will I be forgiven for being “old” without having yet published ten novels and four essays?’ This is from the diary of a young Jules Roy, friend of Albert Camus (both he and Camus were Algerian born) and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Although he took up a military career, and flew bombers for the Allies in World War Two, he did, in fact, go on to become a prolific writer, putting into print many strident political opinions on France’s colonial activities, though he also wrote some novels and plays. In the last years of his life - he died ten years ago today - his publisher brought out three volumes of journals, none, alas, available in English.

Roy was born in Rovigo, Algeria (then a French colony), in 1907, of an adulterous relationship between Mathilde Roy, the wife of a policeman, and Henri Dematons, a school-teacher. Although, his mother later married Dematons, he kept the surname Roy. He was brought up on his maternal grandparents’ farm, and educated at Roman Catholic schools. Having considered a career in the priesthood (he remained religious throughout his life), he chose instead a military career, joining the French infantry and later its air force. He married Mirande Grimal and they had two children. In 1940, he answered Charles de Gaulle’s call to resist the Nazis and joined a flying squadron based in England, taking part in some 30 bombing missions over Germany. Soon after the war’s end he published La vallée heureuse in which he recalled, critically, his war experiences. The French authorities objected to the book, but, nevertheless, it won the Renaudot Prize. Two years later, he published another controversial volume, Le métier des armes. In 1953, he resigned from the army, at the rank of colonel, in protest at the government’s policies in Indochina.

Subsequently, in Paris, Roy made his living as a writer of political/social books, as well as novels, essays, plays, pamphlets, film and television scripts. He was a life long friend of both Albert Camus and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and an ongoing supporter of Algeria’s independence movement - few of his books have been translated into English, but The War in Algeria is one. He divorced Grimal, and, in 1965, married Tatiana Soukoroukoff. They moved to Vezelay in 1978, where he lived near the town’s Romanesque basilica of Sainte-Madeleine and became a mystical devotee of Mary Magdalene. His friend François Mitterrand raised him to the rank of Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1990. He died on 15 June 2000. A little further biographical information can be gleaned from Wikipedia, or obituaries in The Guardian and New York Times.

Roy’s last books were three volumes of journals published by Albin Michel in 1997-1998: Journal 1, Les années déchirement, 1925-1965; Journal 2, Les années cavalières, 1966-1985; Journal 3, Les années de braise, 1986-1996. All three can be previewed at Googlebooks, alas not in English. The following extracts, from the first volume, have been crudely translated using Googletranslate.

5 October 1932
‘Another four years to say “less than thirty years old”. Will I be forgiven for being “old” without having yet published ten novels and four essays? October. To tell the truth, is it not there that we must seek the key to my sadness with causes which are rather obscure and too frequent? I change my mood twenty times a day, like the sky. Fromentin makes Dominique say: “There is in the minds of some men I do not know what an elegiac mist always ready to spread in rain on their ideas. Too bad for those who were born in the mists of October!” ’

7 October 1932
‘Every evening, late, in the closed night, the planes hum and spin. Their position lights go away, like two shooting stars, red and green, and the lighthouse, then, moves away and gets lost. I am thinking of Vol de nuit de Saint-Éxupéry. I think of Captain André Faucilhon who said to me: “It’s very funny. We start straight on the bisector of the isosceles triangle formed on the ground by the lighthouses, and we go for it.”

Installation troubles. Boring. And the money goes, melts. I wonder if we will get there. And you should have central heating installed in this house without a fireplace. This winter, in harsh weather, we will freeze.’

11 October 1932
‘Versailles, the old city of dead voluptuousness. Golden silence on autumn mornings. Grass grows between the paving stones of the sidewalks. Rue Royale, a neighborhood in a small province, enough to make Huysmans roar, Place Saint-Louis, Rue de la Sainte-Famille, towards the bishopric and the seminary. A tram leaves with difficulty, the crowd on the left bank, the town hall with flower beds, the avenues of glory that lead to the castle. Purity of lines, quickly familiar designs, nobility of horizons! Perhaps these terrible Corinthian pediments ... But one of them does not hide the royal chapel, too worked for prayer, and the other the theater which Valéry would like it to be a French Bayreuth?

The coast, towards Satory, towards the still green woods where the hairy chestnuts will burst.’

15 October 1932 , note found.
‘B. said to me the other evening: “See your story. When you find a solid work there, you will find that it was done without any great principle being at its base. France? Philippe le Bel said to himself: ‘Excommunicated? I’m not going to the crusade? Good deal! Take advantage of the absence of our enemies, our rivals, our friends!’ What about Napoleon? Did little Corsica have all these extraordinary projects in mind? Ambition, yes.”

28 October 1932
‘Doyon will not yet have the Goncourt Prize which will go to the big novel by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Voyage au bout de la nuit. Doyon has no bitterness. At least apparently. He tells me that the author of this book will even deserve the prize.’

8 November 1932
‘Best day. Tonight Jean Louis is getting better. In Paris this morning. True Paris sky, with its light mist, its pale sun, and the glory of the old black walls of palaces, idealized by the spire of the Sainte-Chapelle.

Doyon is full of praise for my short story, Retour du front, whose manuscript I had passed to him. He just says it’s a bit special and the story, in fact, is thin. Obviously. There is nothing - just a railroad adventure. Sent the news to the N.R.F.’

8 December 1932
‘Prix Goncourt to Mazeline, a work of the last hour. Céline had three votes when he had to win. I don’t care. Doyon doesn’t even have the voice of Rosny Jeune.’


The Polish writer, Leopold Tyrmand (see Cramming preserves into a jar
mentions Roy in his  Diary 1954 (Northwestern University Press, 2014).

19 March 1954
‘I’ve read Jules Roy’s book La Bataille dans les rizières. Roy, a former pilot, a friend of Saint-Exupéry, a right-wing liberal, was sent by Le Figaro to Indochina and Korea to see the wars going on there firsthand. He returned under the impression that the French expeditionary corps in Vietnam were heirs to the crusading knights, children of Godefroy de Bouillon. A beautiful message, but he doesn’t explain why the crusaders, even the French, fought like lions in the Holy Land, whereas their descendants seem most eager to wage war in the Saigon whorehouses. Roy perceives the communist threat and menace correctly, and even writes beautifully about Seoul bombed by the Chinese: “I was crushed by the impression that the Seoul nights would never end, that they foreshadow a great darkness that one evening will fall for good on the world, as if over a cemetery of all hopes ...” But he doesn’t say what the French want and are doing in this regard, how they are confronting, mobilizing, immunizing themselves against the plague, which, after all, is already eating them from the inside. Instead, he himself is already infected with the loathsome French chutzpah, which the French are still selling as spiritual mettle or dash, but behind which stands neither action nor wisdom. Roy writes about the Americans in Korea that they are unfeeling, naive, dull-witted. Yet somehow the Americans won their war, despite their dimness, while the winged superiority of French virtue collapsed utterly.’

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