Obituary: Paul Guth
Schoolboys who are just too brilliant at all subjects often tend to perpetuate that facility in adult-life displays of unquenchable intellectual versatility in futile search for the approval of a non-existent head-master. Paul Guth, of the multiple literary talents, sought membership of the Academie Francaise: but that severe headmaster always turned him down.
He was of humble origins in a small Pyrenean town, and was such an outstanding scholar at the local College de Villeneuve-sur-Lot that his teachers urged his parents to send him, with the help of a bursary, to the prestigious Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he studied literature and the classics. Among his classmates were Georges Pompidou and Leopold Sedar Senghor. He graduated with distinction from the Faculte des Lettres de Paris in 1933.
He spent a few years teaching French, Latin and Greek in the provinces, then in Paris at another famous school, the Lycee Janson-de-Sailly, from 1937 to 1945, where one of his students was another future president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing. He gave up teaching to try to make a living by his pen.
He had already started to write while still a schoolboy. In Paris, he began making friends in literary and artistic circles, one of whom was the film director Robert Bresson. In 1944, with Paris still occupied by the Nazis, Bresson was planning to make a film based on an episode in Diderot's Jacques le Fataliste, for which Cocteau had agreed to write the dialogue. Bresson wanted to update it to the present and the sublime Maria Casares was to portray the sinister, scheming beauty seeking revenge on a wealthy, unfaithful lover.
There was a curious affinity of temperament in Guth and Bresson. Guth was an intellectual with a certain sweetness and innocence of character. Bresson was of solid bourgeois descent, an adventurous conservative who always referred to the cinema as le cinematographe to distinguish his austere, highly personal, original and subtle creations from what he considered to be the trash of most other directors. Christopher Sykes, in the bygone days of "U and Non-U", informed us that the right people referred to the seventh art as "the kinema", while the middle classes called it the cinematograph. Guth followed Bresson's example and called it "le cinematographe", so perhaps that was why Bresson, over acorn coffee in a St Germain bistro, "Les Deux Magots", invited Guth to follow the making of what was to be a great film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. I think it was one of the first examples of a writer composing a diary-form book on the actual shooting of a film - a practice that was to become fairly common.
Guth called his first book Autour des Dames du Bois de Boulogne: journal d'un film. Its action spanned the film's progress from start to finish, 10 April 1944 to 10 February 1945, and it was published later that year to coincide with the film's opening. The period also covered the end of the Occupation and the Liberation of Paris, and Guth's documentary eye gives us memorable snapshots of life in the ruined City of Light.
He writes of the various sites and studios where the shooting took place, often under great difficulties. He also gives us close-ups of the great Bresson at work, of Cocteau and Jean Marais at home in the rue de Montpensier, of Maria Casares, during an air-raid by the Allies, telling him the story of her life that was to become her fine autobiography Residence Privilegiee. Guth's first book is a masterpiece: however much he tried, he could never surpass it.
Paul Guth achieved popularity with a long series of charming, funny, lightly written books about a character who is now always associated with him, and whom he eventually seemed to personify in his appearances on television - le naif. Guth used this appealingly helpless innocent to satirise modern life - a pathetic hero who is always finding himself in ridiculous situations, and with childlike frankness making unexpectedly pungent commentaries on people and institutions.
His readers often confused him with his leading character, and with reason: his open face, gentle smile, big blue eyes and simple demeanour could easily mislead the unwary. But he was using a mask for his brilliant intellect, for his astounding range of knowledge, for his candour, his purity of heart, for his limpid literary style. He was a faux naif.
The first of the series starring this inimitable character was Les Memoires d'un naif (1953), which won the Prix Courteline, followed by Le Naif sous des drapeaux ("The Naif in the Army", 1955) and Le Naif aux quarante enfants ("The Naif and the Forty Kids", 1956). The last gained what might be called a school-leaving prize: Grand Prix du Roman de l'Academie Francaise.
Guth wrote and wrote and was a regular contributor to Le Figaro and many other journals. He won prizes and decorations and literary distinctions. Behind his writing there was an enthusiasm, an inner kindness and courteous discretion that make all his books - even his Histoire de la litterature francaise (1992) - glow with the radiance of a devoted teacher. And that mischievous sense of absurd humour was always there. In that last-named work, for example, we find no dry-as-dust summaries. The writers of the past come alive in a comical way: Montaigne is a learned cat, Malherbe is le Pere Ubu de la grammaire. It is no wonder that many of his books were enjoyed in schools. Paul Guth loved words, and they made him lovable to a vast readership of all ages; much better than being a member of the stuffy old Academie Francaise.
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