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


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.


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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power