Obituary: Claude Roy
Monday 15 December 1997
The son of the artiste-peintre Felicien Roy, Claude Roy was born with an eye for the unusual and colourful, and an ear for words so acute, he always seemed like a child learning to speak and read.
Several of his best known books are rhymes, poems and absurd tales for the young of all ages, illustrated by well-known artists, among whom he had many friends, including Picasso, Balthus, Zao Wou Ki and Zoran Music. Roy's last work was a book on his friend, Balthus (1996). His most enchanting children's books, two volumes of Enfantasques (1974 and 1978) are illustrated by his own witty collages. He wrote a delightful book about the art of painting, inspired by memories of watching his father at work, in L'Amour de la peinture (1955).
LIke all the truest artists, he had a child-like astonishment at everything he encountered in life. He had the gift to see the most ordinary things as if for the first time, a gift that also reminds us we may be seeing them for good and all, first and last impressions, light and dark combined. L'Etonnement ("astonishment") of the kind Diaghilev demanded of Cocteau when he ordered: "Jean, etonne-moi!" is everywhere in Claude Roy's work.
He wrote several volumes of autobiography, beginning in 1978 with Moi je ("As for Me") and ending in 1990 with L'Etonnement du voyageur. He was the ideal traveller, one who was perpetually ready to be amazed - in America, China, India and Japan.
These books are full of encounters with a transformed everyday, with ordinary people and with the famous. His section on Japan in La Fleur du temps (1988) contains the sort of snapshot sketches that most short- stay visitors find impossible to record in the fantastic novelty of a totally new way of living and seeing life. His brief essay on the Katsura Villa near Kyoto is a fine example of how his trained eye and ear detected the understated, the invisible in the atmosphere of that sublimely simple elegance of architecture and garden.
Claude Roy's childhood was Parisian but with holidays in the country at Jarnac, where he first encountered Francois Mitterrand. He attended the Lycee Montaigne and the Lycee d'Angouleme, and studied at the Faculties of Letters in Paris and Bordeaux.
The Second World War came, and he was captured by the Germans, but his native ingenuity secured his escape and he became an intrepid Resistance fighter, for which he was later awarded the Croix de guerre. He joined the Communist party in 1943, but this did not last long: he was no Stalinist. In 1945, with the 2nd Division of the British Army, he entered the extermination camp of the Nazis at Bergen-Belsen, an experience that shadowed the many horizons of his life to come.
His friend Marthe Robert said he kept "a sad heart but a gay spirit" throughout the many trials he saw inflicted upon humanity, and upon himself. As one reads his journals, one becomes steadily more aware of the presence of the cancer encroaching on his body, though the references to it are sparse and without self-pity.
In the end, one shared his astonishment that he was still alive, that he had lived so long. But even when he knew he was dying, his zest for living never wavered. "Death - all right: it has to come. But to stop living - never!"
For a writer with such a huge and distinguished body of brilliant work, it is amazing that he was not more generously recompensed, for he was awarded only one or two minor consolation prizes out of France's vast store of prestigious literary honours: Grand prix du Pen Club (1988) seems a derisory award for so much talent and so much pure pleasure in his style and personality.
Catherine Trautmann, the sympathetic and knowledgeable French Minister of Culture, paid Claude Roy a graceful and sincere tribute: "He has won his last battle, because for us he will never cease to be alive."
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