Louis-René des Forêts

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Louis-René des Forêts, poet, novelist and painter: born Paris 28 January 1918; married (one son, and one daughter deceased); died Paris 30 December 2000.

Louis-René des Forêts, poet, novelist and painter: born Paris 28 January 1918; married (one son, and one daughter deceased); died Paris 30 December 2000.

Until his very last work, the semi-autobiographical prose collection Ostinato (1907), Louis-René des Forêts remained what they call a confidentiel author, that is, known only to the "happy few".

He was not a prolific writer, and there are several blank years in his bibliography. As a poet, he was almost of bardic stature, a summit of art achieved recently in Britain only by such poets as R.S. Thomas and Geoffrey Hill.

His main themes, both in prose and poetry, were the inability to speak in a life of repeated emotional shocks occasioned by the deaths of family and intimate friends. When he did speak, the words were never final, the search for their inner meanings always tentative, as can be seen from the revised editions of his early works. Yet he was unsparing of human experience. The film about him, Acid, by Vincent Dieutre, shown at the Cannes Festival in May 2000 opens with a quotation: "To force oneself to see only the beauty of the world is a trap into which even the clearest-eyed can fall."

Such contemplations of contemporary humanity were often too much for this clear-eyed visionary, and he fell silent, as other great poets like Valéry and Rilke did, abashed by the sheer horror of daily existence. Des Forêts wrote: "The temptation of definitive silence inhabits every writer. However - and it is a remarkable fact - very few succumb to it, as if a mysterious force had deprived them of that right, and even of the power to make such a grave decision."

This was from an essay first printed in Tel Quel in 1962, reprinted after many silences in 1985 in the collection Voies et détours de la fiction ("Highways and Byways of Fiction"). Such is, in effect the whole story of Louis-René des Forêts' life and work. Ironically, his great second novel, Le Bavard (1946), is a sadly comic portrait of a man possessed by an inability to stop talking. It is a non-stop monologue or interior conversation with an uncontrollable chatterbox self, at times reminiscent of Beckett stage monologues.

It was not until the appearance of his collection of four short stories La Chambre des Enfants (1960; translated as The Children's Room, 1963) that personal tragedy struck him dumb for many years. The accidental death of his only daughter, Elisabeth, was the catalyst that made any attempt at verbal selfexpression seem utterly derisory. For several years he produced instead extraordinarily detailed dream-like Chinese ink pictures that in their tightly organised obsessive repetitiousness resemble the works of Sunday painters or asylum artists of genius. They also have a perversely naïve vision, like the works of his close friend Pierre Klossowski, elder brother of Balthus - another painter with an angelic view of youthful sexuality.

But the day finally dawned when he broke his literary silence. He started working for Gallimard, and translated the letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins - an exquisitely otiose labour of love. He took an abandoned novel and made it into a poem, Les Mégÿres de la mer ("The Shrews of the Sea", 1967) and founded the review Ephémÿre - a once fashionable slang term for homosexual, but in this case prophetic of the review's brief life, despite the fine poets who appeared in it: Yves Bonnefoy, André du Bouchet, Michel Leiris, Paul Celan.

It was not until 1975 that he found the courage to start to put together all the discarded fragments that were to become a great popular success, Ostinato. The rhythmical undercurrent suggested by the musical title often diverges into lyrical or humorous episodes, like his semi-serious portrait of a visit to the Tate Gallery:

London, its green elegance. At the Tate, the sun fixes a soft yellow eye on the river traffic. Plane trees and pines display geometric branchings in the blue circus of the hills. Marches and counter-marches in the great foggy hive where he fits his steps to those of stockbrokers with clean-shaven faces, eyes without either curiosity or surliness, moulded in their sober, well-cut suitings made supple by wearing, umbrella held like a bouquet in one hand . . .

Kensington's richly varnished front doors and brazen door knockers in theatrical squares received similar amused treatment.

Des Forêts was a campaigner for peace at the time of de Gaulle's invasion of Algeria, and was one of the first signatories of the "Manifeste des 121" - peace-minded artists and writers. War reminded him too much of his own deaths: his parents, his brother, killed in battle, his best friend tortured and shot by the Nazis.

I never had the fortune to meet Louis-René des Forêts, but I saw him - and what is more important, heard him - on three occasions. The first glimpse was in 1978, at the opening of an exhibition of his designs and Chinese-ink paintings at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. His tall, frail figure and his almost mask-like, heavily lined face, immense brow and shock of white hair at once reminded me of Bertrand Russell. That great pacifist philosopher must have approved of des Forêts' anti-war activities.

My second glimpse was at the Avignon Festival in 1993, where Le Bavard was performed, and the poet gave readings of his work in his measured, sombre voice that indeed seemed to have been resurrected from a grave or an abyss of sorrow.

Finally, in 1997, he made an extraordinary appearance on television, remaining mostly silent and inscrutable except for the reading of a fine extract from Ostinato. But he refused to explain anything.