Yves Berger

Americophile writer, publisher and critic

Yves Berger was a man of the Midi, and he spoke French with the volubility, enthusiasm and rich accent of an authentic Mediterranean character. Surely it was because he was born with the gift of the gab that he learnt to speak and write English - including American-English - with a mastery rare among the French.

Yves Berger, writer and publisher: born Avignon, France 14 January 1931; literary director, Grasset 1960-2000; three times married; died Paris 16 November 2004.

Yves Berger was a man of the Midi, and he spoke French with the volubility, enthusiasm and rich accent of an authentic Mediterranean character. Surely it was because he was born with the gift of the gab that he learnt to speak and write English - including American-English - with a mastery rare among the French.

His first novel, Le Sud ( The South, 1962), won him the Femina Prize, and as a reward his publisher offered him a free trip to Virginia, the setting in pre-secession times of Le Sud, but where Berger had never before set foot. That trip was the beginning of his lifelong adoration of America and in particular the Indian territories, which he got to know like a native.

It is no wonder that his next book was called Le Fou d'Amérique ("Mad About America", 1966). It was followed by, among other hymns to the Native American, O Cherokee (1968), La Découverte de l'Amérique ("The Discovery of America", 1968), Les Indiens des plaines ("Indians of the Plains", 1978), Nouvelle Orléans ("New Orleans", 1982), Louisiane: entre ciel et terre ("Louisiana: between heaven and earth", 1989), La Pierre et le Saguaro (about the American deserts, 1990) and L'Attrapeur d'ombres ("Shadow Catcher", 1992), which won the Prix Colette. His collected works and albums of very fine photographs of Indian territories have been published in the United States.

Yves Berger was only eight when the Second World War began. The occupation of France by the Nazis when he was 10 was an event that shattered his boyhood. His mother died and his father, a long-distance lorry driver, was requisitioned by the Nazi paramilitary organisation Todt. Yves's elder brother joined the underground Free French in the maquis.

So Berger developed a precocious maturity. He studied English in order to read in the original text some of his favourite American authors - Fenimore Cooper, Jack London, Margaret Mitchell - who awoke in him the idea of "the American dream". He believed that liberty and happiness would be restored to the French by the Americans. When American troops entered Avignon, he saw the first tank was named Peregrine Falcon, and the name became for him a symbol of his own future wanderings.

He felt his whole youth crystallising around images of America. He read every book he could lay his hands on to create his own encyclopaedia of the US, in which an important part was already devoted to the lives of native Americans. Near the end of his life, in 2003, when he was already fighting against cancer, he published his last book, Le Dictionnaire amoureux de l'Amérique ("Dictionary for Lovers of America"). It was awarded the prestigious Renaudot Prize for the Essay.

After the war, Berger entered the Faculty of Letters at Montpellier University, where one of his masters was the great writer Etiemble. He was to express his gratitude to that highly original individual by dedicating to him his first book, Boris Pasternak (1960). It was not until he arrived in Paris in 1956 that Berger was able to see films in English, and he became a fan of American westerns with their panoramic views of the wide open spaces of the Indian territories.

After graduating with a degree in English literature from the Sorbonne, Berger began a career as a much-loved teacher of English at famous educational institutions like the Lycée Pasteur and the Lycée Lakanal. He also began to write essays and reviews for L'Express newspaper and the leading literary monthly La Nouvelle Revue Française. From 1966, he worked for Le Monde.

In 1960 Berger was appointed literary director of the influential publishing house Grasset. In 1970 he was elected a member of the government-sponsored Haut Comité de la Langue Française (in defence of the French language), a position he held until 1978, when he became literary adviser to the director of the first television channel. These important posts introduced him to many famous writers and editors.

One of them was Jean Paulhan, a fine critic and director of Grasset's publishing rival Gallimard. He was from Nîmes, and regularly played pétanque, the Mediterranean form of bowls, with his many friends including Berger, the writer Claude Simon, Jérôme Lindon, Simon's publisher at Les Editions de Minuit, the playwright Jacques Audiberti (usually accompanied by his current starring actress), Pierre Béarn and Marcel Jouhandeau.

Berger frequented restaurants like the Brasserie Lipp in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the night-spots of Montparnasse. There he extended his circle of influential literary acquaintances, who were a great support to him when France's literary prizes were being awarded.

Soon after entering the firm of Grasset, Berger proved his worth by capturing the Goncourt Prize for Edmonde Charles-Roux for her delightful Oublier Palerme ( To Forget Palermo, 1966), the Interallié for Kléber Haedens, the Prix du Roman de l'Académie for François Nourissier ( Une Histoire française) and the Médicis for the Québecoise Marie-Claire Blais. This unheard-of avalanche of prizes for Grasset made Berger into a legend of literary infighting, and he became known as the " grand manitou" of the prize market. (The title is taken from Algonquin culture, and means "great spirit".)

As both a scholar and a creative writer, Berger was naturally very concerned about the future of the French language. Although he worshipped America, he resented its linguistic intrusions into French, for he was a purist. "It is my opinion," he stated,

that the French now speak a tongue that has been so much shattered and infiltrated as to become a diseased victim of Anglo-Americanisms; and the worst thing is, that most people do not realise what abominations they are uttering in the name of French!

The same might also be said of English spoken today.

James Kirkup

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