Obituary: Luc Estang
Thursday 30 July 1992
HIS FAMILY name was Bastard, but he later became known as Luc Estang, one of the most notable figures in French literature and publishing. He was a child of Paris and the north, educated for the most part in religious boarding schools and Catholic seminaries in Artois and Belgium. Though he was never a regional writer, the influence of these places sometimes gives a feeling of Simenon and Mallet-Joris to his novels.
Estang started his professional writing career in Paris in 1929, and during these annees folles, when he led the usual young man's Bohemian existence supported by odd jobs here and there in publishers' offices and insurance companies, he knew all the writers and artists of the period. Through them he discovered he had literary talent, and published his first newspaper article in 1933. This so impressed editors by its freshness and originality that in 1934 he began his long career as critic of literature and the arts on the Catholic daily La Croix. From 1940, he was its editor-in-chief and literary director.
His first volume of poems, Au- dela de moi-meme ('Beyond myself'), appeared in 1938, and was followed by what was in many respects his best collection from prewar days, Transhumances (1939). Though he was to become famous mainly as a novelist and critic, he never stopped writing poetry, using it as a magical means to explore the profound mysteries of the self and to re-define the tragic human condition, whose fleeting loves, hopes, terrors and shattered illusions form the main strands of his later fiction. The anthologist Robert Sabatier said, 'He was a unique poet who never tried to be unique.' Though the spiritual disquiet reflected in the compassionate probity of verse that was always flexible and musical did not try to approach the heights of Claudel or Peguy, its sober lyricism evoked all the joys and sorrows of childhood, youth and old age with an acute literary sensibility conveyed in a language and a style of which he was an acknowledged master: '. . . a breath stirs the word / and rhythm blows its seeds. . .'.
Other deeply moving, well-crafted poems appeared in Mystere apprivoise ('The Mystery Tamed', 1943), La Laisse du Temps ('Time on a leash', 1977) and Corps a Coeur ('Heart Body', 1982). His last collection, Memorable planete, appeared only last year from Gallimard (who published all his poetry). In this volume there is no slackening of passion and spiritual anguish:
But of the secret of secrets
What more do we know than
Prospectors of the infinite, the
From 1945 he had been a permanent jury member of the Prix Renaudot, entering fully into the often malicious literary life of Paris, but with a kindness that helped to temper raving ambition and petty spite in authors of much lesser quality than himself. His influence on jury choices was innovative and just.
Then in 1955, in one of his many crises of faith and temporary loss of literary self-confidence, he resigned from La Croix. He did not want to be dismissed, as he often was by ignorant reviewers, as 'just another Catholic writer'. He lived under the shadow of great Catholic authors like Mauriac, Bernanos, Claudel, Jouhandeau and Julien Green, all of whom were his friends. But they were 'accepted', while Estang was sometimes derided as a mere Catholic propagandist. Also, in the late 1950s and in the 1960s, he was totally out of sympathy with the nouveau roman group, now rather old-hat - something Estang will never be.
Despite these literary trials, he continued writing, and produced about 20 novels, all more or less centred on the concept of human freedom within the often harsh context of Christian faith. He began to recover his creative energies when he started writing regular literary criticism for the Figaro Litteraire in 1955. He was one of the pioneers of serious literary programmes on the radio, and I well remember the beauty of his voice and his clear enunciation - qualities all too rare in the French today - when he appeared in his matinees litteraires on France Culture. These were exciting occasions for me, for they introduced me to a host of new and ancient writers of whom my university syllabus had never heard.
In 1955, as one of the founder directors of Editions du Seuil in the Rue Jacob, he became a great discoverer of new literary talent. One of the firm's first authors, the illustrious and highly productive Julien Green, had long been a close personal friend; and Estang appears in the massive volumes of his journal fleuve - as he does in other literary journals of the time.
Estang published for the first time many young writers and encouraged scores of others who are now stars of contemporary French letters - Renaud Camus, Philippe Sollers, Didier Decoin, and many others. He launched the novel series of the Collection Points also known as 'L'Integrale' because of Estang's scrupulous scholarly attention to the unabbreviated texts of his grateful authors. These included a large number of foreigners - DM Thomas, John Irving, Alexander Zinoviev, William Boyd, Severo Sarduy, Amos Oz, Witold Gombrowicz and Heinrich Boll. He also started the great French literary vogue for substantial translations including the works of Henry James and John Cowper Powys.
The crises in Estang's life led to novels like L'Apostat (1968) and Les Deicides (1980). These show a more severe critical attitude towards the present Roman Catholic religious establishment. He had always sprung to passionate defence of literary iconoclasts and was an ardent supporter of the purity of the French language in writing and in the spoken word. His continuous fight for justice, clarity and honesty often brought him into conflict with the Church and its hierarchy in his determined battles against hypocrisy, bigotry and mediocrity. Among his best-known novels are those composing the vast trilogy called Charges d'Ames ('The cure of souls') published between 1949 and 1954 and comprising Les Stigmates ('Stigmata'), Cherchant qui devorer ('Seeking whom it may devour') and Fontaines du grand abime ('Fountains of the great abyss'). Of these, it is the second and most strongly autobiographical of the novels that remains longest in the memory, with its vividly sombre pictures of existence in a Roman Catholic seminary - a combination of hothouse for youthful male passions amd a frigid scholastic prison for rebellious souls. There are remarkable portraits of a wide variety of priests, lay assistants and adolescent boys and in some ways it recalls a notorious work, Roger Peyrefitte's Les Amities particulieres ('Special friendships') which appeared in 1945, five years before Estang's novel.
The title is explained in the course of this work of 650 pages: the 'devourer' is the 'beast of sin seeking whom it may devour' in the emotional turmoil of human desires that racks the clergy, the rebellious or the pious and the sex-haunted adolescents of Saint-Wandrille. It is Estang's masterpiece and the early influences of dogmatic religious training and of writers like Peguy, Mauriac, Bernanos, Alain- Fournier and Saint-Exupery (to whom he devoted a short critical biography) are always in evidence.
Its epigraph is the grimly mysterious verse from Ezekiel: 'Therefore the fathers shall eat the sons in the midst of ye, and the sons shall eat their fathers. . . ' It sums up Estang's work and life. He was that rare creature, an aristocrat of the common man, someone who belonged to the true elite of intellectual and spiritual life so much abused in our times.
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