OBITUARY: Maurice Roche

To be born on the Day of the Dead might seem to presage a gloomy future. Maurice Roche, unique among contemporary French writers, who was born on that fatidic date, refused to acknowledge the coincidence as an omen of catastrophe.

He spent much of his life making a mock of mortality. His irreverent spirit took a macabre delight in deriding those who took death seriously. He would quote "The Latest Decalogue" by that disabused Victorian Arthur Hugh Clough, with whom he had much in common:

Thou shalt not kill; but needst not

strive

Officiously to keep alive.

Derision was his only defence against a life he despised.

Roche spent the war as a student in Lyons, then moved to Paris to start work as a journalist on Ce Soir (1946-48). Like almost every young man with literary leanings, he founded a short-lived magazine, Elements, in 1951. He did some reporting for various journals, and contributed to reviews both French and foreign.

His first book, Monteverdi (1960), was the first to be published in French on that divine composer. In the same year he composed music for the poems of Henri Pichette's Epiphanies, the first of Roche's many ventures into song and opera.

He made his mark in 1966 with a very original first novel, Compact, which Philippe Sollers brought to the attention of Seuil. It was published in his "Tel Quel" series. In a preface Sollers praises its liberty of form, its grim humour, its amused indifference to what are usually considered serious matters: disease, pain, loneliness and death itself. Recently, it was sumptuously re-edited by Tristram respecting all Roche's typographical eccentricities, and in seven colours, a different colour for each of the seven voices. Yet Roche never belonged to the "Tel Quel" group or the creators of the nouveau roman. He remained an exception, almost an outsider, unclassifiable.

Circus (1972), Codex (1974) and Opera bouffe (1975) are notable for their witty subversions of language and literary form, and belong to the tradition of Sterne, Rabelais, Jarry, Queneau and Jules Romains. They are composed of almost random fragments and short sequences, aphorisms, paroxysmal phrases and absurd black melodramatic interventions. Roche's gay obsession with death and dying made some readers feel distinctly uncomfortable, as did succeeding titles like Macabre, ou triomphe de la haute intelligence (1979), Testament and Maladie Melodie (both 1980), and especially Je ne vais pas bien mais il faut que j'y aille ("I'm Not Feeling Very Well But I'll Just Have To Get On With It"), which in 1987 won the Grand Prix de l'Humour Noir.

The first section of this grotesque gallimaufry is very topical because it introduces a racing cyclist in the Tour de France who specialises in contre la montre record-breaking and is nicknamed "Le Chrono" by the sporting press. It starts:

He was before his time . . . which was very short, short as eternal oblivion . . . He was cremated and a few grams of his ashes were collected in a sandglass that ran for three minutes only.

In Qui n'a pas vu Dieu n'a rien vu ("He Who Has Not Seen God Has Seen Nothing" - a sarcastic title from 1990), he writes: "I wasn't born in those days, but now I'm catching up with myself." He attacks hospitals and the medical profession with light-hearted bitterness: "In the science of medicine's present state - and given your own - it is possible to estimate (barring accidents) the exact time of your approaching demise" - another topical quote.

In Je ne vais pas bien mais il faut que j'y aille he continues in the same vein:

I live death at every moment. I get the feeling I came into this world with death on the brain . . . In our family, ever since the remotest antiquity, we have kept up the custom of passing away so many times, it has become hereditary.

And:

One should first of all die, then begin to live - but why live anyhow?

Maurice Roche was a prose writer of great ingenuity and charm, with a love of abstruse word-play that makes him almost untranslatable, and despite the lifelong duelling with death, full of sour puckish humour that sometimes makes one wince, then giggle helplessly. Like all true farceurs, he was deadly serious.

In Maladie Melodie he wrote: "Is the pain going away, or am I just getting used to it?" Not a bad joke for the Day of the Dead.

Maurice Roche, writer: born Clermont-Ferrand, France 2 November 1924; died Sevres, France 19 July 1997.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Welsh Teacher vacancy in Penarth

£110 - £120 per day + Travel Scheme and Free training: Randstad Education Card...

Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz