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.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit