Poet, fabulist and activist for writers
Wednesday 08 December 2004
Pierre Béarn's life's work began in the 1960s when he founded the poetry review
La Passerelle ("Gangway"). That was when I first got to know him, for it was with the contributors to his magazine that he started his rather quixotic "
mandat des poètes", which was an ambitious scheme, planned as early as 1950, to come to the rescue of down-and-out poets by encouraging those better off to contribute to his
mandats (money or postal orders) to tide their less fortunate brethren over hard times.
Louis-Gabriel Besnard (Pierre Béarn), poet and writer: born Bucharest 15 June 1902; died Paris 27 October 2004.
Pierre Béarn's life's work began in the 1960s when he founded the poetry review La Passerelle ("Gangway"). That was when I first got to know him, for it was with the contributors to his magazine that he started his rather quixotic " mandat des poètes", which was an ambitious scheme, planned as early as 1950, to come to the rescue of down-and-out poets by encouraging those better off to contribute to his mandats (money or postal orders) to tide their less fortunate brethren over hard times.
This poetic benevolent fund, unique in the history of letters, had its office in Béarn's apartment at 60 rue Monsieur le Prince in Paris and its committee and generous donors soon included many well-known names in contemporary writing and publishing - Guy Béart, Michel Bénard, Andrée Chedid, Maurice Druon, Michel Déon, Régine Desforges.
During the Sixties, Béarn made a significant literary contribution to the rebellion of the students in Paris in 1968, when he coined for them the disgruntled slogan that came to epitomise their disgust with daily bourgeois existence: " Métro, Boulot, Dodo" - a life of labour beginning with the crowded morning Métro and ending with exhausted sleep. The idealism of the young demanded something better than that from life, and in a certain sense the young today have got it. (Another version of the slogan was " Métro, Boulot, Bistro, Mégots, Dodo, Zéro" - the addition of bistro and dog-ends found its apocalypse in the nothingness of full-blown zero. ) The phrase had first appeared in his book on his own experiences as a working man, Couleurs d'usine ("Factory Colours", 1951).
The poets' aid scheme flourished and Béarn was elected president of the Syndicate of Writers (1970-75) and thereafter president of several unions devoted to the rights of poets and novelists, until from 1978 he held the important post of President of the Commission of Professional Foreign Writers at the Ministry of Labour.
He was born Louis-Gabriel Besnard in Bucharest, where his father was the chef français in the kitchens of the King of Romania. His parents were of Breton and Champenois origin. At the age of nine, he returned with them to Paris, where at primary school he composed his first verses. Three years later, the First World War broke out. His father died in that war, and a few years later, while he was still an adolescent, his mother died. So Louis-Gabriel Besnard had to shift for himself, and ran through a medley of picturesque jobs that included selling boxes of boot polish, bartender, groom, taxi driver and racing cyclist.
At the age of 20, he embarked upon the battleship Jean-Bart for Constantinople, and was promoted to cipher clerk. On his return to France, he began working seriously as a writer and Pierre Béarn was the pseudonym he adopted when he became a "man of letters". His first professional engagement was as art critic for Paris-Presse in 1930. From 1931 he also wrote on gastronomy for Paris-Soir. He became a popular lecturer, and eventually became a producer of radio programmes from 1949 to 1956.
It is a wonder that his generous dedication to the well-being and the rights of fellow poets and other writers did not prevent Béarn from producing large quantities of his own literary works. But there were numerous collections of poetry, nearly all rewarded by literary prizes. He also wrote on gastronomy, travel in Africa and sea voyages. His poetry, alas, has been unfairly neglected in recent years, but he made up for that with masterly collections of fables, making him the one living writer following in the steps of La Fontaine, Florian and Fénélon. He wrote in all nearly 300 fables, decorated by his own quirky illustrations.
Among his better-known works is a steamily erotic novel, La Bête ("The Beast"), published in 1989 and recently reissued. Béarn's contribution to this popular genre relates to the first sensual experience of a 12-year-old Lolita named Sandrine. He wrote in his foreword:
If this book should destroy my reputation, it can't be helped. A writer, and especially if he is a poet, has a duty to convey a portrait of his times, and as a witness to those times is responsible only for the sincerity with which he lays his heart bare.
In June 2001, Béarn, on his 99th birthday, was merrily signing copies of La Bête at the poetry fair that is held every year on the Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris.
It was important that he defended poets themselves as much as poetry. In one of his last letters to me, he lamented the fact that too many poets write only for themselves, and are not read even by their own fellow poets.
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