A Fortnightly Review.
Mercure de France | 178 pp | $15.99
Gallimard| 128pp | $25.30
by Philippe Sollers
By DAVID ANDREW PLATZER.
PHILIPPE SOLLERS, BORN 28 November 1936, is still at work in the house he inherited from his parents on the Ile de Ré and in Paris, where he has a small office in the legendary Gallimard publishing firm. Gallimard is the publisher of many of his books and his quarterly magazine, L’infini, along with an imprint of the same name, where Sollers publishes, among others, Yannick Haenel and the late Dominique Rolin, Sollers’s long-term amour clandestin. Sollers’s books are rich in erudition, playful wit and a love of freedom, qualities that are in danger of disappearing from a society showing every sign of moving into totalitarianism, a threat that Sollers perceived and wrote about as early as in 1993 when he published Le Secret.
After his first novel, Une curieuse solitude, appeared in 1958 to praise from Francois Mauriac and Louis Aragon, he moved into the experimental avant-garde for the next two decades, until returning to more conventional prose with Femmes (translated into English as Women by Barbara Bray) in 1983. Femmes is quite long, 660 pages and somewhat discursive. But his more recent novels have been spare and elegant in classic French prose, and all have elements of autobiography, mixing fiction and free-form essays verging on poetic prose. Sollers has also published several collections of straightforward essays, previously published in newspapers and magazines; Agent Secret’s title Agent Secret’s title led a literary blogger named Rudolph to compare Sollers to Agent 007, as the book fills in gaps in his biography, as did the earlier Un vrai roman (A True Novel, published by Plon in 2007 and now available in Folio). His narrators in several of his novels — Le Secret, La fete a Venise and Studio — are secret agents.
Sollers was born in Bordeaux and has written with affection of his native city. His family owned a factory there and at the time of Sollers’s early childhood, Bordeaux was flooded with refugees from the Spanish Civil War and from Mussolini’s Italy and soon, the Germans followed. Bordeaux was also the port from which British residents in France, fled at the time of the Fall of France. The ground floor of the family house was taken over by the German occupiers as were others in private houses in Bordeaux. Sollers suspects that the Austrian soldier who occupied his house must have been civilised to judge from the brandy he drank in the evenings while listening to Schubert. Meanwhile on the upper floors, his parents, fiercely Anglophile, listened to secret to broadcasts from London and to programmes that included coded messages from the Free French headquarters to Resistance fighters. These coded messages excited the young boy’s mind and kindled his lifelong love for words and language and inspired in him the fantasy of being a secret agent. He honours the British, Australian and New Zealander soldiers and aviators who gave their lives for his freedom and he has prepared his future tomb to be near theirs in the Allied cemetery on the Ile de Ré under the Rosicrucian inscription “The Rose of Reason in the Cross of the Present”
Sollers writes in Agent Secret of “the good father God gave me”, quoting Montaigne, an earlier writer from Bordeaux. His father was a quiet man who never got over his experiences when he was gassed at Verdun during the First World War and warned his son in early childhood that life was a losing game. Sollers tells us that it was his father who gave him the reason to become a writer. The elder Joyaux was ruined and his factory collapsed when his son was fourteen. This saved the younger Joyaux from taking over the family business. To save his parents from embarrassment over his first autobiographical novel, and also to escape a name which had led him to be teased at school, Joyaux adopted “Sollers” for his life as a writer, retaining the name he was born with for private life. “Sollers” has been called the “most Florentine” of current writers; his name came from a Latin version of Homer’s Odyssey. The Odyssey and the Bible are bedside reading for Sollers in moments of insomnia and James Joyce’s Ulysses is also crucial to him.
The family house on the Ile de Ré, a small island off the Vendéan coast near La Rochelle, was inherited by Sollers’s mother from a sailing grandfather who was the champion fencer saluted in Le Nouveau (2019), and saved because Sollers’s mother had wisely insisted on the separation of goods. Soller’s father was dependent on his wife’s money for the rest of his life. Sollers described his mother as a “singular” woman, unconventional with a strong sense of humour with one eye light brown, the other dark brown, an early instance of Sollers’s life of “doubles and repetitions”. She was a free spirit, “joyous who spoke gaily and with incessant irony”, a Parisian who found provincial life stifling. Sollers called her a “magician” as Lena is in Le nouveau. “I owe everything to Lena’s library,” the narrator of Le nouveau tells us. “Lena, moved in imagination and constant curiosity. Her library had one god: Proust.” Proust is another of Sollers’s gods as well. In Agent secret, he connects him to Spinoza and Montaigne, “all three interesting and rather refractory Jews” who maintain, as Sollers himself does, to joy “as a principle of life, a form of politeness, of etiquette.” In parentheses, one might add the two great loves of his life, Dominique Rolin and Julia Kristeva, his wife, were both born to Jewish mothers.
At an early age, Sollers saw that adults were failed children. He himself has remained something of a child into his advanced old age with an ever-jovial face and a twinkle never absent from his eyes, one of the two great contemporary French writers who proclaim the possibility of happiness in life, the other being the late Jean d’Ormesson (1925-2017) who shared Sollers’s great love of Venice. Sollers spends a part of every year in Venice and is the author of the Dictionnaire amoreux de Venice (Flammarion/Plon 2014). For Sollers, Venice is the place of gaiety and pleasure it was in the eighteenth century of Vivaldi, Casanova and the Tiepolos without the melancholy hues given it by the sombre nineteenth century. Sollers is very much an eighteenth-century man, the other of books about Mozart, Casanova and Vivant Denon. This last figure may be less familiar to the two others even if his name will be known to visitors to the Louvre which Denon organised into a museum in the first years of the nineteenth century. Denon is also the author of a favourite libertine novel of Sollers’s, Point de lendemain.
Raised a Catholic, Sollers has remained “a Catholic libertine” and brought Dominique Rolin into the church. He gave his book about Dante’s Divine Comedy to Pope John Paul II and was blessed by the Pope who was canonized in 2014, nine years after his death in 2005. He has written of the sensual ecstasy of the Catholic Mass and he says the only other writer who have done so has been, “strangely enough”, Proust. Perhaps not so strangely since Proust and Shakespeare are the two writers who have come closest to encompassing every aspect of life. At fifteen, Sollers was sent to board with the school Sainte-Genevieve, run by the Jesuits, His collection of books by the Surrealist writers Breton, Aragon, Bataille and Artaud as well as of Sade, led to his expulsion. One of his most intriguing books, Le Secret (1993) includes the attempted assassination of John Paul II in 1981, connecting the event to international crime, corruption and terror. Sollers has written warmly of Pope Benedict XVI and more ambiguously of his successor, the Jesuit Pope Francis. His 2001 collection of essays, Eloge de l’infini, includes a fascinating essay on Jesus, “L’evenement Jesus” in which he suggests that Jesus shares many of his own tastes, being most touched by Picasso’s little painting of all the depictions of the Crucifixion (“Jesus, contrary to what one thinks, likes powerful works”), is enchanted by music and has a special table in paradise for Mozart. In literature, He “sometimes finds Claudel inspired but His love goes rather for Rimbaud…”
For Sollers, the church is in as much in danger as traditional literature. He ends Légende by telling us that St John quickly revealed that the Word is God and then concludes with the book’s final paragraph, which also appears on the book’s back cover:
The representatives of the old dead God and the old literature are destitute, but continue to talk and write as if nothing has happened, which is without importance, since nobody really listens or reads. The Banks, the Sex, Drugs and Technology reign, automization accelerates…”
Elsewhere in the book, he describes Daphne, who fled Apollo’s pursuit by turning into a laurel tree, with a mixture of lyricism and satire. It is a scene captured by Poussin in Apollo in Love with Daphne, a favourite painting of Sollers. In Agent secret, he describes the painting as “sacred” to him and in Legende “as one of the most mysterious paintings in the world”. Sollers paints his Daphne as a great love of his youth, two years younger and better at studies at the Lycee Montesquieu at Bordeaux. He meets her again in Paris where she has become a high-powered lawyer, living as a couple with another female lawyer and is able to teach Sollers much about the “female gay networks…Ah, if Proust had a Daphne in his adventures, he would have saved a great deal of time!” This world which has now become the norm, the traditional way of male and female the aberration. Now the god Apollo would be considered a “born rapist”. Sollers’s habit of drawing inspiration from works of art, music and poetry and mixing in satire reminds me of Sacheverell Sitwell, an author whom Sollers may well not have encountered. Sitwell tends to be neglected now but he was instrumental during the twentieth century in reviving interest in the arts and music of the eighteenth century and wrote about Scarlatti, Watteau and Mozart as Sollers has. Sollers is led to speculate on such brave new world facts as artificially inseminated babies which he has been writing about since the time of Le Secret.
Sollers has always been fascinated by China and the Tao which led to him falling as did others in the Paris of May 1968 and the years after, into the then-fashionable Maoism. By 1978, he had been disabused of this enthusiasm by the news of Mao’s crimes though not enough to rid him of a lingering admiration for “the great criminal of Mao”, praising him in Agent secret as a brilliant tactician who exemplified the Tao. Getting entirely free of early notions is not always easy. He quotes Mao that “the revolution is not a dinner party” and points out that the French Revolution was not one either. No, and some of us dare even to deplore the bloodbath unleased in 1789. And now, the Chinese Communist government has been guilty, even if by neglect, of unleashing a horror on the world. in Legende, he writes that “Spring 2020…has resembled no others. The viral pandemic, coming from China, rapidly invaded the entire planet…” Sollers’s beloved Venice became “a deserted city. One can imagine the astonishment of Marco Polo”.
Agent secret seems to have overshadowed Legende. Nevertheless, the two complement each other. What he writes in both of his son, David — “an innocent I love” — is moving; Sollers writes in Agent secret that “the experience of paternity was for me capital, the birth of this child an incredible happiness. I felt for the first time that I was dead, which greatly relieved me.” He tells how once when he was busy writing and failed to answer when his son called, that his son told his mother that “Papa is like God: he exists but he doesn’t answer,” an anecdote he earlier shared with his narrator in Le Secret. Sollers has recorded for his son a number of his favourite poems and taught David favourite arias by Bach, Monteverdi and Mozart. His son is an expert at the computer, something Sollers, allergic to screens, avoids, writing in blue ink or on the typewriter. Sadly, his son has been troubled by bewildering neurological worries, attributed to epilepsy and including trembles and “dramatic falls”. One can only feel for Sollers, his wife and their son. Sollers adds, “I feel guilty of these crises since during four years before his birth, I spent days consuming excellent hashish…” Cannabis and its derivatives did as much harm to Sollers’s contemporaries as the serpent did to Adam and Eve.
These two slim volumes are treasures. They will be welcomed by Sollers fans and could well serve as introductions to his work by those who have yet to discover him. I recommend them to anyone looking for something a little beyond the current world of screens to find something more eternal and also much more entertaining. In recent years, Sollers has said he, a man who lives for writing and reading, is now considered a “dinosaur”. His work should encourage the rest of us dinosaurs to rally and carry on the fight.
David Platzer is a freelance writer based in France His work has appeared in Apollo, The New Criterion, The British Art Journal and The New English Review.
Note: All translations have been made by the author.