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Obituary: Herve Bazin

He was a man of stature, in every sense of the word. With his centre-parted pudding-basin haircut combed forward in a wayward fringe, Herve Bazin had the look of a defrocked medieval abbot. His massive build, his craggy features on a rough-hewn, square-jawed head, made him instantly recognisable. At deliberations of the Academie Goncourt or in his frequent appearances on television, he resembled a personage from the Asterix comic cartoons of life in ancient Gaul.

At school, he was both feared and derided by fellow-students. But in fact he was a gentle giant in his daily life; it was in his writings that he let loose the feelings of hatred and vengeance that informed his great heart and colossal frame. Hatred and vengeance were the chief motive forces of his writing, and he claimed that hatred was a more powerful emotion than the most passionate and devoted love - the sort of love he, too, was to know in later life.

Herve Bazin came of a well-to-do bourgeois family in Angers. His grandfather Rene was a Catholic writer of great distinction, and a member of the Academie Francaise, while his grandmother wrote love stories for women's magazines, under an assumed (masculine) name. Their ancestral home was the chateau of Le Patys, whose Gobelin tapestries of Daphne and Chloe were later to decorate the writer's study. His father was a magistrate who with his wife had been dispatched from Angers to China to take up a diplomatic post. Herve and his brother were brought up in the castle by their grandmother, where Herve, whose insubordinate spirit made him unfitted for normal schooling, was taught by a succession of tutors. He was considered to be a great dunce.

When he was 11, his grandmother died, and his mother returned from Shanghai, very reluctantly, to take her family in charge. Herve went to meet her on arrival at the station, and as soon as she got off the train she boxed his ears soundly, as an earnest of the sort of treatment she intended to mete out in future. She felt it was a family and personal disgrace to have such an uncouth-looking and disobedient child. She was the very type of the "unnatural mother". She packed Herve off to various clerical establishments which were unable to control him, and finally to the celebrated military academy, the Prytanee de la Fleche, from which he was expelled as incompetent. This long, unhappy period of his early life was to form the rich soil for the seeds of his later books.

With great reluctance, his mother allowed him to leave home for Paris, where he took a degree in literature at the Sorbonne. He started to write poetry and founded a small magazine, La Coquille, named after the medieval poet-beggars, the coquillards of Villon's days.

Like many writers, he rejected conventional schooling as a recitation of futilities, and used poetry as an entrance ticket to the literary world. He published several slim volumes, not of any great interest: but Grasset in 1992 kindly published his collected poetry, the very least they could do for their greatest best-selling novelist.

It was Paul Valery who, casting a percipient eye over his poems, advised Bazin to write novels. At once he began writing the story of his life, giving it a title taken from the last line of the book, "I am he who walks among you with a viper in his fist." He took Vipere au poing to Bernard Grasset, who accepted it immediately and they signed a contract next day. It appeared in 1948, and was at once a succes de scandale, a succes d'estime with the reviewers, and an immense popular success. This was a period when many famous novelists were appearing: his contemporary Henri Troyat, Julien Gracq, Robert Merle with his astounding novel Weekend a Zuydcoote, the best ever written about the Allied debacle in Normandy, Jean-Louis Curtis who had won the Goncourt Prize in 1947 for Les Forets de la Nuit. However, Bazin's first novel was advertised as "hors Goncourt" and in fact, though he became president of the Academie Goncourt in 1973, he never won the Goncourt.

Conservative critics were appalled and scandalised by Vipere au poing. The Catholic Church, too, fulminated. They felt it unpardonable that a man of 37 from a highly respectable Catholic Angevin family should have let his hatred, anger and resentment against his own mother boil over in such a disturbing and iconoclastic book. To attack "la famille", that holy-of-holies of human life, in such a disruptive manner, was considered blasphemous.

Yet there had been plenty of literary examples of such denunciations of parental cruelty and the abuse of children in all classes of society, from Jules Renard's Poil de Carotte (1894) to Andre Gide's Les Nourritures terrestres (1897) in which he thrilled oppressed youth with the shrill scream: "Familles, je vous hais" ("Families, I hate you!"). Even the Catholic writer Georges Bernanos in his Journal d'un cure de Campagne (1956), in his posthumous journals, Les Enfants humilies and his novel Mouchette (made into a memorable film by Robert Bresson) came to the defence of exploited and abused children. Mauriac in novels like Genitrix (1924), Therese Desqueyroux (1927) and Noed de Viperes (1932) had written with icy realism of the horrors of provincial French bourgeois family life. (When Mauriac met Bazin just after the huge success of the latter's first novel, he observed slyly: "So you're the young man who's stealing my public!") But la famille was still sacred.

Bazin's second novel was equally controversial, an autobiographical account of an attack of amnesia during which he was interned in a psychiatric clinic. It was violently denounced by reviewers, and the public did not care much for it. They were waiting eagerly for the sequel to Vipere au poing and for La Tete contre les murs ("Head against the Walls"), further scandalous revelations about his mother, called in the novel "Folcoche", which Bazin explained to the critics as an old noun from Angers patois meaning "an old sow that devours its young at birth". (It was made into a superb television film for France 2 in 1971, with an unforgettable performance of Folcoche by the great actress Alice Sapritch in a role that made her a monstre sacre.)

So Bazin's third novel, La Mort du petit cheval, was the wild success that is not often the fate of sequels. He went on to write novel after novel, many of them adapted as plays, films and television drama. His works were translated into 45 languages, and sold millions. He became France's best-known writer abroad after Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. His greatest popularity was in Russia, where he received the Order of Lenin from the hands of Leonid Brezhnev (with a resounding kiss on the lips). This was only one of the hoard of decorations and distinctions, which Bazin referred to as his "scrap metal".

For a man who had attacked the family in his works with such virulence, Bazin was an enthusiast for family life, married four times and had seven children, the latest being in 1985 from his fourth wife, 40 years his junior. He claimed that he was making up for lost family happiness in his childhood, and he was certainly a roaring success as a father and grandfather. Towards the end of his life, he was plagued by ailments, but he soldiered on rigorously to the end, and published his last book, Le Neuvieme jour, in 1995 - a sombre picture of civilisation in its death- throes at the hands of scientists and mad geneticists.

His own death came as a complete surprise. That great figure had seemed unsinkable, like the vast mass of work he has left behind him. After reading his book, his mother remarked acidly, "My son did me wrong, but he has made me immortal." He, too, is one of France's literary immortals.Herve Bazin, novelist: born Angers, France 17 April 1911; married four times (seven children); died Angers 17 February 1996.