Invisible Ink: No 159 - Louis Pergaud
Sunday 10 February 2013
This is the story of a handsome young author whose life was cut tragically short, and a legendary novel that never dies. Why, then, is Louis Pergaud featured here? Because he is virtually unknown in the UK and his book is currently unavailable in translation.
Born in 1882 in the Franche-Comté, the very Swiss-looking former "Free County" of Burgundy, Pergaud became a school teacher like his father, moving to Paris after suffering religious conflicts. There, he lived in the most extreme poverty, but continued to pursue literary success, producing two volumes of poetry and two volumes of short stories about the animals of his beloved region. One of these won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, encouraging him to tackle a novel.
In 1912, he wrote The War of the Buttons, about a play-war conducted by two gangs of boys from neighbouring villages. Anyone who is captured suffers the indignity of having their buttons cut from their clothes. As the tale progresses, the tone darkens from one of playful good humour to something crueller and more violent. There's a touch of Golding's Lord of the Flies here, but ultimately the work is about loyalties, acceptance, the right to choose sides, and the key moment of growing up. It seems there's such a book about this golden time in the history of every nation's literature; Catcher in the Rye in the US, and most probably Billy Liar in the UK.
Although the story is specifically tied to a time and place in French history, there's a primal sense of allegory about it. Certainly the novel touched a national nerve. It has been endlessly reprinted and often filmed – at least six times by my count. Each reinvention of the story has changed the time and location to suit the message that its director was keen to convey.
Pergaud was a pacifist but his attempt to register officially as such was denied, and he was sent to war. In April 1915 his regiment attacked German lines and he was shot, falling into barbed wire, where he became trapped. As if to prove his beliefs, some German soldiers rescued him and took him to a temporary field hospital, but his own side launched an artillery barrage that destroyed the refuge, killing him. He was 33. The War of the Buttons is still on the French high school curriculum. A recent film remake moved the action to German occupied France during the Second World War.
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC told new political editor must be 'impartial' with Nick Robinson reportedly stepping down
- 2 Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
- 3 Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
- 4 The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
- 5 Swedish minister gives strongest case yet on why EU should stop turning away asylum seekers
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
Osborne to cap family benefits at £23,000 – announced ahead of his post-election Budget