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Obituary: Monique Lange

A peculiarly Parisian phenomenon is the woman writer who is also an editor for one of the large publishers. Like her friend Elisabeth Gille, a gifted novelist and editor who died just before her, Monique Lange spent most of her adult life in the offices of publishers and magazines. She came of a family of intellectuals who included two philosophers, Henri Bergson and Emmanuel Berl, and her father Robert was a brilliant journalist about whose sad decline into mental decrepitude she was to write her last book, Les Cahiers dechires ("Torn Notebooks") in 1994.

Like Marguerite Duras, she had spent her childhood in Indochina, and in the book she wrote about it in 1972, Une petite fille sous une moustiquaire ("A Little Girl under the Mosquito Net"), she relates her innocent incomprehension of religion and the complications of being a Jew. In a style that is always frank, fresh and lively, like a small but intelligent girl trying to explain puzzling things to herself, she writes: "All those people had died simply because they were Jews, and here I was making every effort not to be one of them."

Even in childhood she had always loved words, and had started to write in emulation of her father, who was "always scribbling". In the first book to bring her any great success, Les Cabines de bain ("The Bathing Huts", 1982), we find Lange at the seaside, at Roscoff, recuperating from an illness, and taking the opportunity of this enforced leisure to put down memories of incidents from her past:

She believed in words. She believed so much in what words have the power to express that she was also to suffer physically because of them. She, the great talker, has trouble expressing herself, but she wants to convalesce at Roscoff, she's going to discover anew the people she loves . . . and also, perhaps, words.

The illness she was recovering from was heart trouble, from which she was to die, so her words about suffering through words were prophetic.

In a brilliant essay contributed to the special number on Jean Genet in Le Magazine Litteraire in September 1993, she tells us: "I was living in a chambre de bonne [a tiny attic] in the rue Jouffroy. I'd cast aside my bourgeois family to lead my own independent life." It was that intoxicating post-war period in Paris, when it seemed very heaven to be still alive after the Occupation and the Nazi death camps.

Lange had a job on a couple of magazines, run by Gallimard, La Revue de cinema and the famous literary journal Les Temps modernes. She writes of her rapture at sitting next to Camus in the canteen - "all the girls wanted him" - and of her first meeting with Jean Genet. The title of her essay describes those first impressions of "a man with laughing eyes". There is a big photograph of Lange strolling arm-in-arm with Genet and his lover Abdallah in an Amsterdam street in 1959, and they make a lovely carefree trio. She tells us:

I had sworn never to speak about Jean Genet. Don't know why - but, as he had done to so many others, he had turned on me and rejected my friendship . . .

I was his slave in the years 1947-48. My editors complained I was never in my offices, because I was always hunting down my stable of authors . . . I saw a small man with laughing eyes - he had the look of a child. He told me he had to get out of his hotel room because he was being tracked by the police, it was a serious matter. So I gave him my little room under the tiles, helped him to bring his things from the Hotel de Chicago.

Genet said he would come and see me next morning at Gallimard. I didn't know where I was going to spend the night but an actress friend put me up, Andree Clement, one of whose friends slept with me and got me pregnant. I had to have an abortion, and when he heard that Jean Genet took pity on me and let me have my room back.

She discovers his books, reads them all avidly in what were then only rare limited editions, and falls totally under his spell. Genet introduced her to a fellow-spirit, Violette Leduc (to whom he had dedicated Les Bonnes). But when Monique Lange candidly but tactlessly told him he looked like Violette (who was no oil painting) he turned against her and was very cold and unhelpful even while Lange was beginning to edit his books for Gallimard. (He complained because she was also editing Violette, and he accused her of holding up the publication of his own works in favour of Violette's.)

It was all so typical of the atmosphere of those days, a ferment of friendship and hostility, love and anger, idealism and sordid encounters. But then Lange met the love of her life, a Spanish novelist who was also working for Gallimard, Juan Goytisolo, who married her. Genet referred to him as the hidalgo.

Monique Lange took over the translation section at Gallimard, where I met her in my vain attempts to gain permission to publish the French text of Paul Valery's long poem La Jeune Parque with my own verse translation en face. She was kind, but vague about something so unimportant to her, so important to me. She was friendly with many great names, including William Faulkner, whose French rights she controlled, Jean Genet, of course, and many others. (I tried again to obtain permission this year, and no one took any notice: at least Lange had consented to see me and discuss the matter.)

She also wrote film scripts: Roberto Rossellini's Vanina Vanini, Henri- Georges Clouzot's La Prisonniere, Vittorio de Seta's L'invitata and Joseph Losey's La Truite (adapted by her from the novel by one of her stable, Roger Vaillant). She wrote two good biographies of Piaf and Cocteau: Jean Cocteau, prince sans royaume (1989) and Histoire de Piaf (1988).

But it is for her beautifully limpid style in the novel that Monique Lange will be remembered best: Les Poissons-chats ("Catfish" - her term for men who are not attracted by women: her first book, 1959); Les Platanes ("The Plane Trees", 1960). Her husband Juan Goytisolo has written an affectionate memoir in the 1950s and 1960s when they started living together in an apartment in the rue Poissonniere, En las reinos de Taifa, which was published in French as Les Royaumes dechires (1986).

That word, dechire ("torn") brings me back to Lange's last book, Les Cahiers dechires, in which she writes about "the unbelievable full-stop that death implies when one does not want to be dead . . . The dead do not return. Only books have the duty and the power to make them come back to life, through words . . ." The title refers to her tearing-up of all the notebooks she wrote covering the last 18 years of her life, so as to be able to devote herself without their anecdotal help to the memoir of her father, a life that only death can put an end to. It is an account of five years of desperate existence with his mental disease: "Now, this march towards death, this combat for life, is a part of our daily existence . . . my father, since he was laid low, is no longer my enemy. For his own sake, and for ours, I would wish it all over for him."

Robert Lange was a famous journalist who led a brilliant and distracted social life all over the world. "I'm the one man on earth who met both Clemenceau and Chou En-Lai," he would endlessly repeat in a self-absorbed monotone.

Monique Lange writes of her own approaching death, indirectly: "Unable to finish his memoirs, they are written for him by his daughter as an act of true homage and true love. I know I must give this account of his last, interminable journey. I know too that my writing of it will take me away, to some other place . . ." Fortunately, her death came suddenly.

James Kirkup

Monique Lange, writer and editor: born Paris 11 September 1926; married Juan Goytisolo (one daughter); died Paris 7 October 1996.