In the gritty footsteps of Simenon

He's a legend in France, but Sébastien Japrisot is hardly known over here. Christian House discovers a dark and scandalous literary talent
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The Independent Culture

'Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that's the way of the world." The way of the world, in all its hard, tragic and hopeful guises, was to be Sébastien Japrisot's preoccupation throughout a prolific and varied career - one that spanned literary fiction, crime novels, screenplays and translations, right up to his death in March 2003. He held a Graham Greene-like reputation in France: a brilliant talent cocooned in a complicated and volatile personality. However, on this side of the Channel, he has remained relatively obscure to all but Francophiles and cinéastes.

'Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that's the way of the world." The way of the world, in all its hard, tragic and hopeful guises, was to be Sébastien Japrisot's preoccupation throughout a prolific and varied career - one that spanned literary fiction, crime novels, screenplays and translations, right up to his death in March 2003. He held a Graham Greene-like reputation in France: a brilliant talent cocooned in a complicated and volatile personality. However, on this side of the Channel, he has remained relatively obscure to all but Francophiles and cinéastes.

That will undoubtedly change this month with the film adaptation of A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiancailles), Japrisot's romantic masterpiece of anti-war fiction, whose opening lines I've quoted above. A Very Long Engagement hits our screens courtesy of the director/star team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Audrey Tautou, the partnership behind the stellar success Amélie.

Japrisot's classic follows the endeavours of Mathilde, a young woman on a quest to discover the fate of her fiancé, Manech, who went missing in action in the Great War. Mathilde was crippled in a childhood fall, and her physical strength is replaced with a mental resolve as rigid as a girder. She is a beguiling protagonist. Guillaume Laurent, who adapted the book with Jeunet, notes: "What's so beautiful about A Very Long Engagement is that the heroine's tenacity, strength of will and faith transcend the horrors of war."

It transpires that Manech and four other soldiers were sentenced to death for self-mutilation (in an effort to get sent home from the trenches). They are thrown unarmed into no man's land, seemingly to their death. As with many of Japrisot's books, a single event of momentous importance is seen from many different angles. Witnesses provide conflicting recollections, leaving Mathilde to fit together the jigsaw of events.

The result is an unusual love story, a cryptic thriller and an unbridled indictment of military powers. Since its initial British publication in 1993 the book has had a very long engagement with readers. Never falling out of print, especially unusual for a work in translation, it gradually built on a strong word-of-mouth. Sales simmered quietly throughout the 1990s. Christopher Maclehose, Japrisot's original UK publisher at Harvill, believes the timing of its publication worked both for and against the novel: "It won the Prix Interallié in France, awarded by writers and journalists only, not by publishers. These are writers simply choosing among their own whose book they chiefly esteem." However, the similarity in storyline to the then current movie Life and Nothing But (in which Philippe Noiret gave a powerhouse performance as an officer tracing the unknown soldiers of the First World War) put the kibosh on an immediate screen version. And the book even had a rival within Harvill. "If we had tried harder with this book, and less hard with Peter Høeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow, the successes would have been the other way around," says Maclehose.

Japrisot was born Jean-Baptiste Rossi in Marseilles in 1931 into a family of Neapolitan immigrants. The toughness of those two cities, forged by crime and a hard-living itinerant working class, would infuse the environments and characters in his future work. He was a born rebel, disregarding authorities at every turn. He was expelled from his Jesuit school and moved to the Sorbonne to study philosophy. He ignored his teachers, using lectures to write his own fiction. The result of those wayward years would be his shocking debut novel, The False Start (Les mal partis), published when he was only 19. It told the story of a love affair between a 14-year-old boy and a 26-year-old nun. It was a tremendous hit both in his home country and abroad, going on to sell 800,000 copies in America in just three weeks.

Early notoriety brought him to that most iconic figure of disaffected youth, Holden Caulfield. At 20, he landed the job of translating The Catcher in the Rye. It was to be a labour of love. His career as a translator was shortlived but also included an interpretation of Jack Trevor Story's The Trouble with Harry to coincide with Hitchcock's screen version. By the time he returned to his own writing he had ditched his own name for the anagrammatical tag of Japrisot. With it he developed a strange hybrid of police procedural, psychological study and social commentary. It was a winning combination, one that was both gritty and yet possessed the dreamlike quality of fables. Jeunet was especially drawn to this mix when he first read A Very Long Engagement: "A blend of innocence and fantasy impregnates the whole period despite the gravity of events."

Japrisot wrote his first two thrillers, Trap for Cinderella (Piège pour Cendrillon) and 10.30 from Marseilles (Compartiment tueurs) in a month. They both appeared in 1962, the first winning the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière and the latter causing the New York Times to declare him "the most welcome new talent since the early Simenons". It was an apt judgement: Japrisot's bedroom was lined with the works of Maigret's creator. For the following four decades he produced a series of roman policiers in tandem with an eclectic screenwriting career. Film and literature would always be intertwined. Scandal was the other constant: his reputation for being impossible to work with went hand in hand with adaptations of novels such as Pauline Réage's infamous The Story of O and his own One Deadly Summer (L'été meurtrier), which presented a naked and extremely young Isabelle Adjani to stunned audiences.

If Japrisot's excesses were legendary, they were only part of the story. He was "a many- sided personality", says Maclehose. "I'll tell you the truth, I thought he was a most angelic human being. Anybody who has been a publisher for as long as I have knows quite a lot of quite difficult people, and not only was I warned that he was difficult, his French publisher at Denoël said that when he comes to London, I'm coming with him to make sure he behaves. And yet he was as courteous as any visiting author in my experience has ever been. I always regretted that he didn't come back."

With the release of Jeunet's movie, all of Japrisot's books have now been filmed. A list of the stars involved reads like a Who's Who of the French film industry: Alain Delon, Michel Serrault, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Michel Piccoli, Jean-Louis Trintignant and even Eric Cantona. Japrisot's film work was often imbued with a dark sexuality and moral ambiguity. When English-speaking stars were required to draw an international audience to his films, it was the brutish talents of Oliver Reed and Charles Bronson that were called upon, rather than the mainstream matinee idols.

Japrisot's current renaissance in Britain is a sign of a larger publishing trend for euro-noir, which has seen the success of authors such as Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum. "These books provide readers with such an interesting window into life in Norway, life in Holland, wherever," believes Maclehose. "For the time being, those books are on a rising graph. Maybe five, 10 years from now, booksellers and readers will turn against them in favour of Jilly Cooper. Who can say; tastes shift."

Japrisot never reaped the rewards of his late fame. He faded out along with the 20th century as the effects of illness, cigarettes and drink took over. "Treat everything with derision," he said with rancour in one of his last interviews. "It's the only way to counter misfortune." His final book remained unfinished and it's unlikely that any new work will see the light of day. French publishers take a dim view of releasing posthumous fragments. "The tragedyis that Japrisot did not live to walk around Paris and see every bus with Audrey Tautou on the back," sighs Maclehose. And yet that lingering bitternessis fitting for a writer who left a body of work as potently Gallic as a pack of his favoured Gauloises.

'A Very Long Engagement' opens on 21 Jan

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