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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.