AN OLD gentleman of 96, Marcel Levy, has just published his first book in Paris, to great acclaim. Another of France's 'exceptionally gifted' old men has died young, at the age of 91. Jacques Perret had a long and chaotic life filled with adventures - in sports, in literature, in war, in politics, in love. At the Sorbonne, he read philosophy, with a preference for Nietzsche, and his studies already singled him out as that peculiar anomaly, the right-wing anarchist who was to become one of the high-spirited outsiders of the French Republic, for he was for most of his life a militant, almost mystical monarchist. He had a passion for sports, especially sailing and cycling.
After completing his studies, his chequered career began when he took part in the Rif war in Morocco as a sniper. Then he laboured as a lumberjack in Sweden, joined an underground movement in Nicaragua, cut bananas on a Caribbean plantation, panned for gold in Bolivia. Travel in French Guyana provided him with material for his first book, Roucou, in 1936. The second, Ernest le rebelle (1937) gave Fernandel one of his best parts when it was made into a movie by Christian-Jaque.
At the age of 38, Perret was mobilised, went to war against the Nazis in an elite commando corps, and was taken prisoner in 1940 with the collapse of the French army. But he was able to escape his German captors and made his way back to join the Resistance movement in the Maquis.
It was while he was in the Nazi POW camp that he collected the characters and comic contretemps of his enormously successful novel Le caporal epingle ('The Elusive Corporal'), which appeared in 1947 and only just missed winning the Goncourt prize that autumn. The caustic wit and gritty realism of this masterpiece perhaps dismayed the Goncourt judges at a time when France was trying hard to forget the Second World War and its load of treacheries, collaborations and racketeering. One can guess from the brilliant off-beat style how Perret outwitted his brainwashed Teutonic guards: he simply went on being himself - unpredictable, humorous, imaginative, resourceful, courageous, athletic and subversive - qualities mostly lacking in the average prison-camp blockheads. The book is very funny, and contains virtuoso passages of fantastic pseudo-Joycean blather like the celebrated tongue-twisting verses of the incalculable poet-corporal: 'Ton the t'a-t-il ote ta toux, O Theetete tant athee tetant de Thetys un teton tant tate . . .' Try that on your French friends, and all will get the tips of their tongues in a twist: there is no real word for 'tongue-twister' in French. But Perret could rattle it off at top speed, as could his old playmate Aveline, who was also a games fantatic.
This hilarious, suspenseful and yet deeply moving book was made into a classic French film by Jean Renoir in 1962, with Jean-Pierre Cassel, Claude Brasseur, Claude Rich and Jean Carmet among the players. Cassel is perfect in the role of the aberrant corporal who is the life and soul of the escape party of three sharply contrasted characters. The film, like the book, is in my opinion the very best prisoner-of-war escape saga ever made. This was entirely because of the excellence of the book. In the same year, John Sturges produced The Great Escape, with a host of Hollywood stars, based on the semi-documentary book by Paul Brickhill. Neither the book nor the movie can bear comparison with Le caporal epingle. It is a comic version of that other great Renoir classic, La Grande Illusion, and it is curious that both films end with a similar deeply moving scene in which the escapees return to the outside world and say goodbye to one another.
After the war and during the uneasy peace Perret played a typically outsider part in the Algerian war. True to type, he chose to join the OAS (Organisation Armee Secrete), a clandestine terrorist movement opposing the independence of Algeria. These underground activities got Perret into trouble with the authorities in France. He was already writing savage polemics in the royalist journal Aspects de la France and was arrested for insults to the head of state, General de Gaulle, after which he was stripped of his military decorations. Perret went on producing virulent monarchist pamphlets like Batons dans les roues ('A Spoke in their Wheels'), Cheveux sur la soupe ('Hairs in the Soup'), and Salades de saison ('Seasonal Salads') - all ironic titles.
But he went on writing his novels, short stories and newspaper and magazine articles with that unique grace of style that distinguished his stance in life and that was the flower of an undeviating moral elegance in his firmly held beliefs. A wonderful novel about his activities in the resistance movement, Bande a part (a title stolen by Jean-Luc Godard), won him the Prix Interallie in 1951, and he was awarded the Grand Prix Litteraire de la Ville de Monaco seven years later for the whole of his work to date.
From time to time he produced a book of short stories: Objets perdus, La Bete Mahousse, and Histoires sous le vent, the last- named reminiscent of Maupassant's sailing stories. Another book about sailing was Le vent dans les voiles, and in Role de plaisance (1967) he again wrote some superb descriptions of the sea. Most of these titles are still in print and selling well under Gallimard's paperback series, Folio. Perret also published three volumes of enthralling memoirs.
He went on sailing, cycling and writing to the end of his devil- may-care life. His last book appeared just over a year ago, a collection of brilliant essays he wrote for the leading French sporting paper L'Equipe, entitled Articles de Sport, which means both sports articles and sporting goods, characteristic double entendre. These bright, informative, elegant essays on all kinds of sport show Perret at his very best, and helped to raise sports writing to the level of a new literary art. They are full of fascinating bits of literary- sporting titbits, rather in the style of Aveline in his Code des jeux. For example, we learn that Dickens in the spring of 1868 practised the 'French velocipede' at Spencer's Velocipedic Academy. Tolstoy cheered on the bicycle races at the Tula velodrome and dashed all round his estate on a bike with such style and panache that his exploits were reported in Le Cycliste. Zola cycled all over Paris and declared that if it wasn't for the gradients the bicycle could replace the horse. Alain-Fournier rode along the chemin du pays de Meaulnes at the time he was writing his great novel Le Grand Meaulnes.
Most of these entertaining and exquisitely composed articles are about bicycles and bicycle racing, about the Tour de France, that seemingly endless bicycle race across the ups and downs of the French landscape that every summer has millions of Frenchmen in a state of nationalistic frenzy, and which is simply incomprehensible to anyone not French. But Perret also discusses football, tennis, wrestling, boxing, skiing, sailing, motor-racing and rugby. He tells us of an occasion at the football match between Scotland and Germany on 10 April 1954 at which, for the very first time in his life, he was reluctantly compelled to get to his feet to honour the strains of 'Deutschland uber alles'. When he receives a dedicated photograph of the boxer Pierre Langlois, he goes home and reverently hangs it up between a portrait of Francois I and an old lithograph of Mexican rebels attacking a convent.
Perret gives us countless humorous anecdotes, like the one of the Bishop of Lourdes saying: 'Notre Dame (Our Lady of Lourdes) praises the Saviour for all the advantages the bicycle has brought into the life of man . . . Our Lady herself would have used this means of locomotion had it existed in her day.' We learn that between La Bastide d'Armagnac and Saint Justin there is a chapel called Notre-Dame des Cyclistes. Perret may well have visited it, so touched was he by the grace of style and the blessings of humour.