Obituary: Andre Frenaud
'Good books sell, very good books do not,' declared the great French publisher Gaston Gallimard in the 1950s. 'For example, I like Henri Michaux very much. But who reads him? And Genet . . . There is no relation whatsoever between what he costs me to print and what his books bring in.'
Gallimard published all the main titles of the fine poet Andre Frenaud. But did they sell? His 1968 collection, La Sainte Face, in a revised and expanded edition, was not issued in the Collection Poesie paperback series until 1985. Yet nine of Frenaud's books are still in print with Gallimard, and apparently still selling. Three of them are in the cheap paperback list.
How could a rather discreet, retiring poet whose subjects were mainly everyday objects and refined spiritual and emotional reactions to small events in an ordered, conventional life have continued to keep in print? French poets are unusually lucky in finding almost all publishers open to their work. They are also fortunate in having their main popular editions for a wider public issued in beautifully produced limited editions for the large army of French collectors of such rare items. For example, another veteran French poet, Eugene Guillevic, born in the same year as Frenaud, is still being published by Gallimard and various other firms. His Art poetique (1989) had its financial success enhanced by having a limited edition of only 20 copies 'sur Velin pur chiffon de Rives Arjomari-Prioux' made available for collectors (price not revealed) who may have little interest in the poetry itself but lay down such rare items, like rare wines, as an investment. So poets like Frenaud are kept alive.
Frenaud, like many other French poets, was additionally fortunate in having had as his friends painters rather than poets, though he was launched upon his poetic career by no less an eminence than Louis Aragon, whose praise of his first collection, Les rois mages ('The three wise men', 1943), was echoed by Paul Eluard and Rene Char and others of the Surrealist school. This success brought him into contact with artists like Jean Dubuffet, Fernand Leger, Jacques Villon, Joan Miro, Vieira da Silva, Pierre Alechinsky, and particularly Raoul Ubac and Jean Bazaine, who were to become his close collaborators on illustrated texts of his poems far outnumbering those in conventional book form, and all very expensive.
Frenaud liked to be thought of as a workman rather than a poet, like Veronese who told the Inquisition tribunal that he was not an artist but a lavatore, a labourer. Frenaud was proud of his carpenter and joiner ancestors.
The part of Burgundy where he was born is not the sort of idyllic region we usually associate with that name. Montceau-les-Mines, as its name suggests, is an industrial town. Frenaud attended the Ecole St-Francois de Sales, in Dijon, then studied literature, philosophy and law at the universities of Dijon and Paris, where he graduated in law. His first post was as a teacher of French at the University of Lvow, in Poland, in 1930. He also travelled widely in most of Europe, including the Soviet Union, during the Thirties. He became in 1938 an administrator in the Department of Transport in the Ministry of Public Works, and remained there until his retirement in 1966, except for service in the army; he was imprisoned by the Germans for two years until he managed to join the Resistance. His first poems were scribbled on scraps of paper from cement bags.
After the war, he began contributing to all the leading literary journals, and the success of Les rois mages was followed by other volumes at regular intervals. His last works were Haeres (1982) and Nul ne s'egare (1986). In February of this year, I visited a beautiful exhibition dedicated to his work at the Centre Georges Pompidou, his texts and manuscripts enriched by paintings, lithographs and photographs by his many artist friends, and by letters from all the leading poets of the period. Another exhibition, in which his links with painters was even more vividly displayed, was held at the Chateau de Ratilly. In one of his books, Il n'y a pas de paradis (1962), he developed the concept of himself as an ordinary individual celebrating what Sartre called non-espoir (no-hope). He has been called the most metaphysical poet of the generation of great poets like Char, Yves Jean Bonnefoy and Guillevic. His many distinctions included receiving the Grand Prix de l'Academie Francaise, in 1973, and the Grand Prix de la Poesie, in 1985.
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