OBITUARY : Jean-Louis Curtis

After the Second World War, I was determined to regain the Continent by hook or by crook. I arrived in Paris with my landworker's wellies stuffed with 10-bob notes donated by a few less adventurous cronies. The date must have been November 1947, because the first thing I noticed was a display of the new Goncourt prizewinning novel Les Forets de la nuit by an author unknown to me, Jean-Louis Curtis.

I was hungry for French food, theatre, ballet and cinema, and did not want to waste my little store of francs on books. I started reading the book standing up. It was a brilliantly evocative account of life in a small village in occupied France. Half an hour passed and I bought it, and the author's first novel, Les Jeunes hommes (Prix Cazes, 1946), which made me Curtis's lifelong fan. After the starchy British literary diet, I was lost in admiration of this classic, spare, elegant style with its serious wit and wide-ranging diversity of themes.

Curtis was everything the British distrust in a writer. Multi-talented, versatile, international in cultural and social concern. Yet he adored British literature. His are the best translations of Shakespeare; while his adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's La Locandiera with its Venetian carnival gaiety often graced the boards of the Comedie Italienne in the Rue de la Gaite in Montparnasse. Curtis also translated modern British playwrights: his Hadrian VII and Look Back in Anger were big box-office hits that enabled him to devote all his time to travel, good living and writing.

Curtis was one of the founders of the influential literary monthly La Table Ronde which started in 1948. The name was taken from the circular table at the Vieux Paris restaurant on the Place du Pantheon. Every Monday, a group of writers including Curtis, Jacques Laurent, Francois Mauriac and other like-minded traditionalists would gather to dine well and exchange scandalous gossip about fellow authors. In Bertrand de Saint Vincent's massive biography of Jacques Laurent, Curtis makes several appearances, and gives unexpected insights into Mauriac, "that pillar of Roman Catholic respectability", throwing himself back in his chair overcome by uncontrollable giggles at his own deliciously malicious barbs directed at rivals such as Andre Gide, Henri de Montherlant, Marcel Jouhandeau and other homosexual writers. At the same time, these sessions were further enlivened by the fairy presence of the supernaturally skinny ballet dancer Jacques Chazot, model for Giacometti, who would perform his dazzling pirouettes and tours- en-l'air for the delectation of the ageing Mauriac. Curtis too was an admirer of the dancer, and was present at his funeral in 1993.

Curtis paid no attention whatsoever to the faddish fluctuations of "literary taste" which tended to disparage his conservatism in the latter part of his career. Born with the Russian October Revolution, he was, unlike many of his contemporaries, never deluded by the sinister papier-mache beam on the visage of Josef Stalin. Curtis was not a liberal but something better, a libertarian humanist, unusual in our cynical times, and so derided by the "socialist intelligentsia", whom he mocked in his turn in a series of "pastiches" written from 1981 onwards in L'Express.

In Les Forets de la nuit, he had drawn acid portraits of those who played at being members of the Resistance. (Curtis served with distinction in the French Air Force, like his friend and fellow writer Jules Roy.) In Chers corbeaux (1951) his targets were the Parisian bourgeoisie who had done well out of the Nazi occupation. In La Parade (1960) he wrote a devastating satire on rich old provincial upper-class drones, a book that infuriated families like the Giscard d'Estaings. In Le Mauvais choix (1984) he attacked Christian bigotry. It is his only historical novel, well researched, set in the third century AD.

All this was composed with an ironic restraint the French think of as "tres British", but which is in fact the proud heritage of the greatest writers - Stendhal, Voltaire, Flaubert, Proust.

Yet underlying the mockery there was a true concern for France and the French as can be seen in his novels dealing with social and humanitarian issues, that led to his being called a "pagan Bernanos". So Les Justes causes (1954) is about the liberation of Paris, and Le Jeune couple (1967) dealt with the splendours and miseries of our idiotic "consumer society".

Today in the Paris of the "Goncourt Season", Jean-Louis Curtis, Officier de la Legion d'Honneur et des Arts et des Lettres, Grand Prix de Litterature de l'Academie Francaise, is being honoured once more by those who were his young friends and close contemporaries in those post-war years that seemed then so full of promise.

James Kirkup

Jean-Louis Curtis, writer; born Orthez, Basses-Pyrenees 22 May 1917; died Paris 11 November 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksNow available in paperback
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 People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum