André Stil

Politically 'engaged' writer with a sharp eye

In 1938 and 1939, while I was a student at the University of Lille, one of my fellow students was André (Dédé) Stil. I came from the coal-mining areas of Tyneside, while André belonged to the great engineering and coal-mining regions of north-eastern France. He was born at Hergnies (Nord). We were both enthusiastic about the Surrealists and passionately in love with the poetry of another northerner, Arthur Rimbaud. Our common origins had brought us briefly together.



André Stil, writer: born Hergnies, France 1 April 1921; married (three sons, two daughters); died Camélas, France 3 September 2004.



In 1938 and 1939, while I was a student at the University of Lille, one of my fellow students was André (Dédé) Stil. I came from the coal-mining areas of Tyneside, while André belonged to the great engineering and coal-mining regions of north-eastern France. He was born at Hergnies (Nord). We were both enthusiastic about the Surrealists and passionately in love with the poetry of another northerner, Arthur Rimbaud. Our common origins had brought us briefly together.

André was three years younger, but, like most Frenchmen of my own age, he seemed infinitely more sophisticated. He was always smartly dressed: his father was a tailor. In those days, students liked to be immaculately turned out: they would not have be seen dead in "jeans" which were then called "denims" and worn exclusively by seamen.

Stil took his License ès Lettres and a further degree in philosophy. Already he had a firm working-class political stand, and when he took up his first schoolteaching post he had become a fully fledged member of the Communist Party in 1940. He became a full professor at Lille in 1941 and stayed there until 1944. He took up the post of Secretary-General of the Party newspaper Liberté, which he held until 1949, when he became Editor-in-Chief of Ce Soir, directed by the famous poet and novelist Louis Aragon, a dedicated follower of Stalin. This led to Stil's being elected Editor of Humanité, the Communist flagship, and, from 1950 to 1970, as a full-time member of the central committee of the Communist Party. Though he left the paper in 1956, he continued to contribute.

He had always been enthusiastic about literature. He was an ardent admirer of André Breton and the Surrealists. Among writers, one of his early favourites and supporters was Aragon, Moscow's chief literary advocate in France.

In 1949, Stil published his first novel, with the nostalgically " engagé" title Le Mot "mineur", camarade ("The Word 'Coalminer', Comrade"). It was followed in 1950 by his first collection of short stories, a form he reintroduced into contemporary French literature and influenced by his reading of Russian writers: it was called La Seine a pris la mer ("The Seine has Taken to the Sea"). His next book was a novel, Le Premier choc (1952, translated as The First Clash, 1953). This, with the help of Aragon, was awarded the Stalin Prize in Moscow.

Stil was to write over 50 books of prose - novels and short stories - and a collection of poems, Au Mot amour ("To the Word Love", 1992); and they sold well, for their style is direct and unpretentious, but always subtly following the party line. His next book was a polemical essay, Vers le réalisme socialiste ("Towards Socialist Realism", 1953). Yet always he refused to be labelled a "Communist author". The fact is that he simply regarded writing itself as a militant, revolutionary act, a theme he tried to promote in several self-justifying yet quite persuasive accounts, most notably in his autobiography, one of his most attractive works, Une vie à écrire ("A Life Spent Writing", 1993).

All the same, despite strenuous denials, the strongly insistent Communist creed was strikingly exhibited in several works whose titles speak for themselves - L'Optimisme librement consenti ("Optimism by Willing Consent", 1979) - and off and on in works of fiction and even in scripts for television dramas.

But he was never very far away from his coal-mining home in his fictions: La Neige fumée ("Coal Dust on the Snow", 1996); J'étais enfant au pays mineur ("I was a Child of the Mining Country", 1981); Paysages et gens du Nord ("The Country and People of the North", 1980, with brilliant photographic illustrations in the style of Willy Ronis by José Dupont); and the two-part novel André et Violine (reissued in one volume in 1994).

These works were nearly always given a friendly reception. Yet his personal life was in itself full of enthralling subjects for short stories and novels. His public actions frequently gave expression to his extreme political "engagement". He scandalised many readers by rigidly following the party line dictated by Moscow in the Prague trials. He astonished me by declaring that the accused in the Prague trials fully deserved death - again blind obedience to the Moscow diktat.

In other respects his "engagement" was correct and human, as in Beau comme un homme (published during the 1968 social and political convulsions in France) and in his novels about the Algerian conflict like Le Foudroyage ("The Cave-in"), which was confiscated by the police and seized by the censor in 1960. In May 1952, he took part in demonstrations against the visit of the American General Matthew Bunker Ridgway, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, after which he was sentenced to three months in jail.

Nevertheless, he was eventually awarded the Légion d'honneur. He won the Grand Prix du Roman Populaire - a title that sums up his basic achievements only - for his works as a whole. Finally, in 1977, he was granted his foremost literary honour when he was elected, with his friend Francis Nourissier, to the Académie Goncourt after the appearance of L'Ami dans le miroir.

That "friend in the mirror" might well refer in part to Louis Aragon, his literary companion on the Central Committee of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF). Stil describes him affectionately, with the prospecting eye of a novelist:

We were seated side by side at the Committee, and I enjoyed watching him. He appeared to be bored and not to be listening. He would jot down words, lines of poems, rhymes, in the margins of the order papers. But then, from time to time, though very rarely, he would speak up, creating a brief dazzling intervention, and one realised that he had paid full attention to the whole debate. Then he would start doodling again . . .

The sharp eye for realistic detail and quiet humour are demonstrated here to be major assets in André Stil. And they are profoundly human, not merely political.

James Kirkup

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