Obituaries: Jose Pierre

IF YOU don't take yourself seriously, nobody else will. This axiom, well known to all the greatest comics, was at the root of the studied frivolity of Surrealism, a literary and artistic movement devised both to amuse and appal. It required that essential element of absurd gravity to make it believable, just as the only way to play farce is to treat it in deadly earnest.

No wonder that the leader of the movement, an expert at self- advertisement, Andre Breton, was called "The Pope of Surrealism". His studio photographs by Man Ray show this incorrigible dynamiter of accepted values as a staid, rather portly banker with - for a fierce homophobe - a certain resemblance to Oscar Wilde. He is still deified in France. The hotel where he lived for a while in Montparnasse, Rue Dolambre (a few steps from the Hotel Apollinaire), bears a solemn memorial slab informing the passer-by that the Great Anarch slept there. No plaque marks the Hotel Apollinaire . . .

One of the great authorities on Surrealism who gave some ballast to its Ship of Fools was Jose Pierre, its unofficial historian. Born in 1927, he did not meet Breton until 1952, when the movement was already on its last legs - like a flaccid carnival balloon it expired in a tired sigh with its auto-dissolution in 1969. Breton died in 1966.

Like all charismatic leaders, Breton was an expert manipulator of his disciples. The only true genius to rally to his support was the great novelist and essayist Julien Gracq, who dedicates his early (1948) book on him to "the soul of the movement" and ends it by calling him "one of the heroes of our time". It has the right Communist ring. Jose Pierre, like Gracq, was an ardent admirer, but, unlike Gracq, who soon saw the error of his ways, an unconditional one. Pierre became Breton's right- hand man: he helped him arrange the last international Surrealist exhibitions in 1959 ("Eros") and 1965 ("L'Ecart Absolu"). After the leader's death Pierre was the organiser of all the post-Surrealist collective exhibitions both in France and abroad.

It was therefore natural that Pierre should have been an authority on Surrealist art. He wrote Andre Breton et la peinture (1987) as a belated pendant to Breton's own Le Surrealisme et la peinture (1948). Pierre's Le Surrealisme aujourd'hui (1973) was one of the hundreds of rare items in the Paris auction of the bibliophile Jacques Matarasso's Surrealist collection which lasted for three days at Loudmer's in December 1993.

Other prominent works, each selling for thousands of francs, were Pierre's Le Futurisme et le Dadaisme (1966), Le Cubisme (1966) and Le Surrealisme (1967). One of his last great works was L'Univers symboliste, fin de siecle et decadence (1991). Its companion volume, L'Univers surrealiste, had appeared in 1983.

Indispensable works of detailed scholarly reference for the student of Surrealism are the two massive volumes he compiled of Tracts surrealistes et declarations collectives, 1922-1969 (1980-82) which group together the pronouncements of weight by the Pope and his Swiss Guard of theoretical collaborators, often unintentionally funny when at their most solemn. These tomes include the important Manifestes du Surrealisme propounded by Breton in 1924 and 1930. Pierre's expert commentaries on these epoch- making literary documents provide us with the best history of Surrealism ever written. He also wrote poems, and a play on the Marquis de Sade.

One of Pierre's most subversive works is the erotic novel La Fontaine close, les livres secrets d'une secte politique inconnue (1988). This unknown sect is composed entirely of women, led by Aletheia (Truth) and her handmaidens Zoe (Life) and Sige (Silence). Like the Surrealists, the sect issues manifestos, in one of which Aletheia proclaims: "And if a man returned your kiss at the exact second in which you gave him yours, it would produce the ourobouros drakon of the ancient alchemists - the serpent devouring its own tail." The book's metaphors have a Surrealist aura: "woman" becomes "urn of felicity" or "chosen vessel". Her lips are a "rainbow of sighs", her saliva "the dew of discourse", her navel "oasis", the vagina the "secret cup" or the "fountain enclosed". It makes one regret that such a sect never existed.

In the early Thirties, the Belgian Surrealist E.L.T. Mesens published a plaquette entitled Violette Nozieres with tributes to her from eight Surrealist poets and eight painters. She was put on trial for having attempted to poison her mother and having murdered her incestuous father. Along with the anarchist murderess Germaine Breton (no relation) and the Papin sisters who had assassinated their female oppressors (the theme of Genet's Les Bonnes) Violette entered the Surrealist pantheon as a symbol of active feminine resistance to the slavery of family life.

Breton's poem begins: "Before your winged sex like a flower of the Catacombs . . ." Eluard writes: "Violette dreamed of undoing - has undone - the horrible knot of serpents that are the ties of blood . . ." Pierre performed a public service by re-editing and prefacing this tribute in 1991. It far surpasses Claude Chabrol's lifeless 1978 film version with the superficial portrayal of Violette by Isabelle Huppert.

The publisher of Violette Nozieres, Eric Losfield, hailed Pierre's 1974 novel Qu'est-ce que Therese? C'est les marronniers en fleurs along with Histoire d'O as "the greatest erotic works to appear since the war". It was admired by Francois Truffaut, who at one time contemplated making a film of it. Critics praised its maniacal style, its musicality that casts an ever more spellbinding sexual excitement upon the willing reader.

The narrator is a youth obsessed by his elder brother's fiancee. She uses all her wiles to distract her fiance from his studies, but he resists valiantly, swearing never to fall victim to the perils of the flesh until he has passed his final exams. The younger brother takes advantage of this stalemate and after a bibulous dinner, when the parents have retired to bed, the three of them go on drinking and dancing and are possessed by a common sexual frenzy.

The novel is really a treatise on sex education. The heroine's licentiousness is beautifully evoked, without vulgarity - perfect entertainment for that "otiose noon" of Ronald Firbank when, in the words of the great 18th-century hymn-writer Isaac Watts' Divine Songs for Children: "Satan finds some mischief still / For idle hands to do."

It was, of course, censored, but in today's slightly more liberated moral climate it has been reprinted (in 1998) by that master of contemporary erotic publishing Jean-Jacques Pauvert, in his series "Lectures Amoureuses".

It is good to know that Jose Pierre before his untimely death had the satisfaction of seeing this work, his favourite, reprinted and recognised as an erotic masterpiece, the sort of Surrealist dream at the heart of us all.

Jose Pierre, writer: born Benesse-Maremme, France 1927; died Paris 7 April 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003