OBITUARY : Jean-Louis Curtis

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The Independent Online
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.