Obituary: Henri Thomas
Tuesday 09 November 1993
A WRITER who disdained the social humbug of literary life, ignored the meretricious glitter of 'media exposure', belonged to no self- publicising group, wrote fecundly and fluently in a wide variety of forms and seldom had a fixed abode, Henri Thomas was a fine writer whom tidy-minded critics and professors of literature would not easily classify; so he was often neglected and was practically unknown to the general public.
Yet he was loved by the happy few who welcomed each of his works. His 60 or so titles were nearly all from Gallimard: he had been discovered by Jeannette Gallimard who urged her reluctant husband Gaston to publish Thomas' first printed novel, Le Seau a charbon ('The Coal Bucket') in 1940. It is still selling steadily in 'Folio' paperback. But most critics simply did not know what to make of this artistic freak, always considered a a borderline case.
Thomas was a many-tongued poet, a wanderer across all kinds of uncharted linguistic and literary borders. He was born in Lorraine, on that fragile frontier between France and Germany. The First World War robbed him of his father, a working-class man. By the age of 15, Henri was already in adolescent revolt. His idol was Rimbaud, a model he always followed, in poetry and life, in their common quest for 'the absolute'.
After brilliant studies as a state scholarshp boy at the College de Saint-Die in the Vosges, and in Paris at the Lycee Henri IV (where his teacher was the humanist philosopher and essayist Alain), Thomas dropped out, rejecting a place at the Ecole Normale Superieure which would have assured him a comfortable niche in the Establishment, and went wandering all over Europe. He lived for a while in Corsica, an island he was to celebrate in poetry and prose: for he was a man of islands, that make their own borders. (He lived for many years on the remote Ile d'Houat, off Quiberon.) Like all true rebels at that time, he became a Communist. He worked with dockers in Marseilles, loading ships with uniforms and munitions for the Spanish Republicans, and sleeping rough in dockside warehouses.
'Writing is the only way to grow old painlessly,' he was to write. He started early, but wisely destroyed a first handful of poems. In 1935, he wrote his first novel, autobiographical, about an unhappy adolescent infatuation in Brittany, but put it away and forgot all about it until it was rediscovered by his daughter and published in 1992 as Le Cinema dans la grange ('The Picture Show in the Barn').
Thomas began sending his poems to magazines and in 1938 knew that unforgettable ecstasy of seeing his work in print for the first time in the review Mesures run by Jean Paulhan, who was to become a good friend when, with Marcel Arland, he edited La Nouvelle Revue Francaise from Gallimard.
Thomas did a little reluctant teaching, made a few literary friends; all marginal characters like Antonin Artaud, Pierre Herbart and Andre Gide, who mentions him in his Journal/Souvenirs. Thomas had written to Gide when still a schoolboy, and received encouraging letters in reply. When he started attending Henri-IV, Gide, quite aware that Thomas was not homosexual, showed him great kindness, taking him out to dinner and carefuly reading the boy's early short stories and poems.
Unlike the Surrealists, Thomas wrote mostly formal rhymed verse of great elegance and purity. The first of his eight collections was published by Gallimard in 1941 - Travaux d'aveugle ('Working Blind'), which is now included with the next four volumes in Gallimard's paperback poetry series, entitled simply Poesies.
When the Germans invaded and occupied France, Thomas was demobilised, but because his home was now in German territory he was afraid of being called up into the German army. So Gide and Pierre Herbart provided him with false dcuments and he went to live with them near Grasse. Herbart was a Communist and a homosexual, and Thomas admired him very much, especially for his wonderful short novel about homosexual love, L'Age d'or (1953), which is certainly the finest novel ever written on this theme.
But Thomas wanted to return to Paris, so Gide gave him the keys to his apartment in the rue Vaneau and asked him to put his enormous correspondence in order. Thomas discovered unpublished letters to Gide from Mallarme and from Oscar Wilde (asking for 200 francs and adding 'You can't imagine how ugly poverty makes one'). All these letters are now in the Bibliotheque Jacques-Doucet collection of manuscripts.
Thomas began producing books of verse, short stories, novels and translations regularly after the war. His translations include works by Junger, Stifter, Kleist, Pushkin, Tyuchev, Essenin, Melville and Shakespeare: the versions of the Sonnets are the finest ever made in French. In 1960 he won the Prix Medicis for his novel John Perkins, and in 1961 the Prix Femina, for Le Promontoire ('The Promontory').
From 1946 to 1957, Thomas was working in the French Section of the BBC, and this is when I met him. He wrote me a letter of appreciation after my translations of French poets were broadcast by Rayner Heppenstall.
Life in still-rationed, grimy London formed the subject of his fifth novel, La Nuit de Londres, covering a single night in the capital - though it is really about a series of nights Thomas spend wandering the city streets. He started writing it on the top deck of a 24 bus. He wrote several poems about London: 'Victoria', 'Lincoln's Inn', 'Hammersmith' and 'Harrington Gardens' (where he lived for a while).
From 1956 to 1960 he gave seminars at Brandeis University, where the students fell asleep in class, unable to understand a world of his French - or of his English, either.
Thomas died in the maison de repos in Paris where Samuel Beckett spent his final days. He published Beckett's first French texts in his magazine Obsidiane. His work is little known outside France. His biggest foreign public is in Japan, through the admirable translations of his works by Shin Wakabayashi - a return again to islands and their borders.
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