A Conversation With Novelist Jean Rouaud on Wars, Art and Writing

During a visit to Tel Aviv, the French author and winner of the Prix Goncourt explains the influence of wars on culture

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Jean Rouaud in Tel Aviv this month. 'Wars are everywhere, all the time.'
Jean Rouaud in Tel Aviv this month. 'Wars are everywhere, all the time.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

“I sold newspapers at a kiosk in the 19th arrondissement in Paris, an area with residents from the four corners of the earth, for seven years,” French author Jean Rouaud writes. The neighborhood residents who patronized the kiosk were mostly immigrants or refugees from places devastated by war, he adds, victims of murderous regimes, racist persecution and economic collapse. They would peek at newspapers reporting in their language about events in their countries.

This recollection appears in the introduction, titled “COVID 14,” which Rouaud wrote for the new Hebrew version of his 2014 novel "Éclats de 14," translated as “Resisei Milhama” (literally, “War Shrapnel”).

Twenty-four years separate that first work and “Éclats de 14.” Both are tied to World War I

“They told me stories about distant wars fought long after what my generation called ‘the last war’ – World War II,” Rouaud told Haaretz, during a recent visit to Tel Aviv. “‘The last war’ for my grandfather’s generation was the Great War of 1914, which was the greatest until the next one erupted. Meanwhile, up until today with the reality in Ukraine, the ‘last war’ is actually the ‘current war’ and it claims victims worldwide. There are no cease-fires. Borders are erased. Wars are everywhere, all the time.”

A damaged Paris building on boulevard de la Gare (present boulevard Vincent-Auriol) after being bombed during the World War I. Credit: Maurice-Louis Branger / Roger-

Rouaud, who will turn 70 this year, was born in the Loire-Atlantique region of western France. After studying humanities at Nantes University, he worked different jobs, among them selling papers at that newstand in Paris. His debut effort, the 1990 novel “Les Champs d’Honneur” (“Fields of Glory”), so impressed its publisher, Jerome Lindon at Les Editions de Minuit, that Lindon convinced the reluctant writer to submit it to the judges’ panel of the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize – which it won.

“The judges didn’t want to pick a too-famous, well-connected author who was the natural candidate,” he says now modestly, mentioning his competitor but asking not to reveal the name.

Twenty-four years separate that first work and “Éclats de 14.” Both are tied to World War I. Along with the beautiful prose peppered with humor and unforgettable characters, one feels absence in “Fields of Glory,” expressed by means of all-but-hidden hints, like delicate brushstrokes on mysterious characters, their lives and mainly their deaths. The third generation after “that war” still feels that absence.

The narrator of "Fields of Glory," Rouaud speaking in his own voice, walks past a monument to the fallen on his way to school every day, in the center of a town in Loire-Atlantique. The names of two of his relatives carved in marble there mean nothing to him. Only when his great aunt Marie becomes demented and confused does a picture of the missing heroes – her siblings – begin to emerge.

Jean Rouaud during his visit to Tel Aviv, this month. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

An eternal spinster, this fragile, gray woman has dedicated her life to God and the saints. She has also taught three generations of girls at a school next to the local church. Fragments of conversations between the “adults” and the narrator reveal that Marie went to Tours during the war, in May 1916, to tend to her injured younger brother Joseph after he inhaled mustard gas. Marie, the Catholic, who offered, “take me in his stead, blood for blood,” prayed to God and to all the relevant saints – but despite “the Catholic deal,” Joseph, 21, died, whereupon Marie stopped menstruating. Thus the “blood for blood” prayer of the 26-year-old sister was answered. With her brother’s death, her life as a woman was cut short.

A year later, another brother, Emile, falls in battle, and a sister Eulalie dies at the end of the war of Spanish flu. Their stories are not told in detail, nor is that of the trip by the narrator’s Grandpa Pierre in 1929 to Commercy to locate the bones of his brother Emile and bring them home for burial.

The identities of the young, poisoned Joseph, who died in 1916, and a second Joseph, Rouaud’s father, who died of a heart attack when he was 11, are revealed through the aunt’s demented memories. (Rouaud named his younger daughter Josephine.) That distant war also left its mark on the third generation, that of the narrator himself. The persistent rain in Breton penetrates the roof and doors of the rickety old car of Grandpa Pierre, who has a lit cigarette stuck between his lips. The lighter singes his mustache and the heavy smoke chokes the grandchildren cramped in the back seat. Fire, lack of air, relentless rain and soft earth – these are the foundations that will also inform “Éclats de 14.”

Mathurin Méheut's 'Le Zeppelin de Revigny,' 1916. Credit: Mathurin Méheut / Emmanuel Rousseau / © Photo Grand Angle

Rouaud says that “Éclats de 14,” which he wrote to mark the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, started out as a commission for an opera that was never staged.

“The government allocated a huge budget for marking the event and I was asked to write a score based on the four elements – air, earth, water and fire,” he explains. “The war poisoned and polluted everything: Those whose lungs weren’t poisoned by mustard gas, who didn’t die from shelling, bullets, the cold, fear – were emotionally damaged. The ravages of war were like a fatal virus, so I titled the introduction to the Hebrew edition ‘COVID 14.’

“The ‘war of earth’ was a polluted wound along thousands of kilometers of foxholes in which despondent soldiers fought, were injured and were buried. Enormous tracts of land were uninhabitable and not cultivable because of the artillery fire and grenades. Geological tests indicated at the end of the fighting in Verdun in 1916 that the ground level had dropped around seven meters. On the first day of the Battle of Verdun, which lasted eight months, the Germans fired over two million shells, which ravaged the soil.”

The “war of water” that Rouaud describes is the reservoirs, the lakes that flooded the foxholes. “They drowned the soldiers or left them soaking for weeks, rotting in the unrelenting rain,” he writes, adding, “The ‘war of the fire’ was the millions of shells, bullets and grenades.”

And finally, there was the “war of the air”: “The air always found itself outside the equation,” he writes, “but it is also poisoned by airplanes, Zeppelins, and then mustard gas suddenly appears, trickling into the depths of the depths and the bends of the foxholes. It crawled inside them, setting the fighters’ lungs, eyes, noses and throats on fire.”

‘Broken faces’

He notes that only two out of every three French soldiers recruited to fight in World War I returned home, among them masses of bodily or emotionally wounded, alcoholics and soldiers with severe deformities. “They called them ‘broken faces,’ Others lived out their lives in psychiatric facilities,” he says. “An entire generation of young women were widowed, orphaned, left single, embittered. They wore black as a sign of morning for a relative who had been killed or of the sad, lonely life they led.”

You wrote in "Éclats de 14" that World War I was the last classic war in which two armies fought frontally over land without any ideology.

“The war was indeed ‘classic,’ as opposed to World War II, which was ideological – Nazis, Bolsheviks. It also killed millions of civilians.”

In the book you added the war of culture to the four basic elements.

“In the 1900 Paris Exposition, Paul Cezanne depicted the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. In his genius, the painter, who died eight years before the war, grasped what was liable to happen: The portrait shows a cold, glum, detached and strange man among kitschy Belle Epoque works. I quoted at the end of the book the poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s ‘Alcools’ from 1913: ‘The outburst of laughter broke up into pieces beneath my head.’ It’s a glum prophecy that came true. Apollinaire served in the war, was hit by shrapnel in the head and died of the Spanish flu. In ‘Éclats de 14,’ we used drawings by Mathurin Méheut, which refute the lie of staged films of stormtroopers heroically leaping from the trenches. The war also poisoned memory.”

Jean Rouaud during his visit to Tel Aviv, this month. 'After the war came white canvases, a white square upon a white background.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Méheut was a painter and illustrator who joined as an infantry soldier in the killing fields. During lulls between battles, he sketched the anguished soldiers in the foxholes, the shifting ground, the war far from any propaganda film, using aquarelle and ink, according to Japanese tradition.

That war gave rise to some powerful authors: Hemmingway, Celine, Remarque.

“For me, valuable testimony on the war is literary, not informational. French literature was based until the 16th century on chivalric romance – the hero riding a horse, drawing his sword and charging the enemy. But then authors like Pierre de Ronsard and Michel de Montaigne realized that the invention of the cannon left no place for chivalry. I think the last chivalric romance was Claude Simon’s ‘The Flanders Road,’ in which the author describes in the first person how he joined a cavalry unit during World War II and fought in 1940 against Germany’s heavy artillery. The absurdity of the knight drawing the sword on horseback and then falling with his horse, like in slow motion, denotes for me the collapse of chivalric romance.

“What did the war bring to plastic art? After the war came white canvases, a white square upon a white background. It is an ideological creation that erases reality, negates existence. Dadaism and surrealism led to the deconstruction of language, as if we needed to create a new language. Deconstruction controlled everything, even dance. I worked for a while with the Monte-Carlo Ballet and we visited the Bolshoi in Moscow. They still dance classically there. Nothing has changed. On the other hand, is sitting for an entire hour on an empty stage or marching side to side against a gray background dance?”

If that’s so, do you think the Great War destroyed art?

“I don’t know. If it isn’t sublime, it isn’t art. On the other hand, Theodor W. Adorno said, ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ Since the stone age, poetry and dance were always ways for mankind to get closer to divinity.”

You arrived in Israel around the time of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day. How do you relate to the idea of the duty to remember? What did Aunt Marie in “Fields of Glory” do on November 11, when the end of World War I is marked?

“After World War II, the Marxist French intelligentsia, which opposed nostalgia, commemoration, etc., ruled. The emphasis was on progress and the future. Jean Paul Sartre saw Marcel Proust as reactionary, ‘a collaborator with the bourgeoisie’ who sanctified memory of the past. Sartre thus declared the death of the past-based novel. My theory is that the French simply did not like looking back, to wartime, to collaboration with the Nazis.

“The atmosphere changed in the 1980s, with the arrival of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Milan Kundera in the West, with Patrick Modiano, who first wrote about collaboration [with Nazis], with Claude Lanzmann’s film epic ‘Shoah.’ They put on trial in the 1980s collaborators like Maurice Papon, Rene Bousquet (who was killed at home before his trial) and the Nazi Klaus Barbie, ‘the Butcher of Lyon.’ The Berlin Wall fell. Suddenly, the concept ‘never again’ and ‘duty to remember’ were heard. Aunt Marie? I’m convinced she didn’t think at all about November 11. She remembered the war with her body, her soul, her appeals to God.”

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