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.
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