Jean-Jacques Sempé: Luck of the draw

He's France's most celebrated cartoonist - and world famous for his stand-out covers for The New Yorker. Now his lifetime's work is being published in English for the first time. John Lichfield met him

One might have guessed that Jean-Jacques Sempé would live in an apartment with a wide-angle view. He is, par excellence, the master of the panoramic cartoon. Typically, he draws from a high or distant viewpoint, showing rolling landscapes or elaborate townscapes in which tiny human figures struggle with petty tragedies or undeserved victories.

Most cartoonists like to zoom in on their idea: to focus on the joke for fear of losing it. Sempé loves detail and confusion. He often (not always) sets his characters in a large, jumbled world, whose mass of detail amplifies the punch line or leads you away in chaotically different directions.

From his apartment in Montparnasse, there is a breath-stopping view over the whole of central Paris, from Saint Sulpice and Notre Dame north to the hill of Montmartre.

Sempé, a youthful 74, sits in grey flannels, blue blazer and bright blue shirt, looking more like a retired banker than a still very active cartoonist - one who, to many people, is among the finest living cartoonists in the world.

Stating the obvious, I say: "You have a very Sempé view."

"Oh, do you really think so?" he replies, grinning vaguely and looking out of the window. "I never thought about that. I was kicked out of my last apartment. I was looking for ages. And this is what I found. It's just a coincidence."

Hmm. This is typical of Jean-Jacques Sempé. He hates to analyse his work. He loves to talk about it but not to analyse it. That makes the most French of cartoonists rather un-French. The French are taught from an early age to adore abstraction. Not Sempé. He prefers practicality - what works for him.

He draws that which satisfies his harshest critic - himself. Finding new ideas is a daily torture. If something works - as a drawing, as a joke, as a story - that is a relief, a triumph over the tyranny of the blank sheet of paper.

"Now that you mention it, though, I've always been astonished that we humans assume somehow that we are big. If you look at a person beside a tree or a building or a town, we are just tiny, little scraps of things. I never consciously set out to draw that way. But I suppose I do often make my people small. That's just the way that the drawings come to me; that's what works for me."

Sempé had a full page cartoon in Paris Match for many years. Since 1978, he has achieved a huge international reputation through his covers for The New Yorker magazine.

This month Phaidon publishes four English-language collections of Sempé drawings, covering the whole of his career: Nothing is Simple (1962), Everything is Complicated (1963), Sunny Spells (1999) and Mixed Messages (2003). Much of this work has never been published in English before. (Captions are an important part of the Sempé effect and they have been brilliantly translated by Anthea Bell.)

The publishers say that they hope to introduce the Anglo-Saxon world to one of the "greatest cartoonists they already know" - whose early work remains strangely unknown outside France. There will also be Sempé postcards, notebooks and writing pads.

Born in Bordeaux in 1932, Sempé was a failed soldier and a failed toothpaste salesman, before discovering a talent for drawing and illustration. He had his first success in the 1950s, collaborating with René Goscinny, who later created Asterix. Their stories about a cheerful, stubborn, lovable, empty-headed schoolboy, Le Petit Nicolas, became a French classic, a softer Gallic version of Nigel Molesworth.

Two collections of Nicolas stories have already been published by Phaidon in English. A third - Nicholas on Holiday - also appears next month.

There are many talented French cartoonists. Sempé is the most French of them: the one who dwells the most on French themes and French images, but he is also the most universal, the French cartoonist of his generation who is most loved and successful abroad.

He draws every day, putting one sketch aside when he gets bored and resuming work on another. The front room of his apartment is jumbled with drawings in various states of completion. He is preparing them for a forthcoming exhibition in Switzerland. Just like the drawings themselves, there is a kind of order to the Sempé jumble.

One of the new works is a classic Sempé that could have appeared at any time in the past 40 years. It shows a room in an art gallery with enormous, highly detailed oil paintings in elaborate frames. Dwarfed by them, a tiny figure of an old woman addresses a seated security guard. She says: "I really love your work."

Sempé is - or seems to be - a modest man. Nonetheless, the walls of his apartment are also an art gallery, dedicated mostly to his own drawings. In the entrance hall, there is an original of one of his much-admired covers for The New Yorker.

A couple of well-heeled lovers is standing on a balcony overlooking a grim forest of New York skyscrapers. They are leaning at an exaggerated angle to the left, with deeply contented expressions on their smug faces. After staring at the drawing for a few seconds, you see that that they are leaning to glimpse a crescent moon that is peeping romantically between two skyscrapers. This is classic Sempé: mocking, but also delighting in, the tenacity of the most banal of human instincts. At his best, Sempé cartoons are a kind of illustrative haiku. In such a small space he conveys a great amount of meaning.

I say to him that I wonder if he is a novelist manqué. Often in his drawings, you get the sense of being shown a scene from a much larger story. There is for instance, the very drab, middle-aged women who has entered a cathedral and says, "Lord I don't have very long but I have to tell you that every day is a desperate battle against temptation etc etc ..."

"You are very flattering," he says. "But I have never really thought about things in that way. I draw what works for me, what I find funny ..."

Hmm, again.

All the same, on a couple of occasions Sempé has attempted cartoon novels. His 1962 classic, Monsieur Lambert, is also being published in English for the first time by Phaidon.

Every drawing is set in a Parisian neighbourhood bistro where the lunchtime diners - all men - sit at the same tables every day and have the same conversation. On the left, there is a pretentious, circular debate about the unification of the French left (which is still going in France 44 years later). On the table to the right, the four men talk only about football.

Then one of them, Monsieur Lambert, fails to turn up. It emerges that he has a girlfriend. The conversation at his table turns in his absence to tales of past conquests and love affairs, some real, some, we come to realise, imagined. Lambert's love affair ends. He returns. Football (one of Sempé's personal passions, along with jazz and aircraft) takes over again.

This is, again, typically Sempé: dwelling on the bigger picture, the permanence of the way things are, the details of the restaurant and the menu, rather than the passing story. Of Lambert's love affair, we learn almost nothing.

"I looked at that book again the other day for the first time in years," Sempé told me. "I have to say that I was very impressed. If you want to do that kind of thing, that's just about as good as you can do it."

Has his mask of modesty slipped? Not really.

"I had entirely forgotten it. It was as if I was looking at someone else's work. My friends all roared with laughter when I told them. They know that I am usually terribly critical of what I do."

There is a second Lambert cartoon novel: The Social Progress of M. Lambert. Sempé pulls a sour face when I mention it.

"That's not much good," he says. "Don't bother with that one."

Would he consider revisiting M. Lambert in the 21st century?

"No. I couldn't. First of all, I wouldn't be interested in the modern faces. In those days, you could convey male faces very simply - a bald head, a moustache. Today, everyone looks different. Things are more complicated, but less interesting. To me, anyway."

"What I was trying to do in Monsieur Lambert was to capture a certain 'bonhomie', a kind of simple, easy relationship between people, especially men. I don't think that exists today."

It is true (and a frequent criticism of his work) that there is something frozen about Sempé's style and his obsessions. His more recent drawings do take on the modern world. He shows roller skates, mobile phones and computers. All the same, the atmosphere remains stubbornly that of the 1950s or 1960s.

"I find the modern world hard to draw," Sempé says. "Even when I draw computers, my friends point out that they are the kinds of computers that disappeared in the 1970s.

"I love to draw street scenes and that means that you have to draw cars, but I hate drawing modern cars. They are very fast and very efficient but they have no charm. For me the modern world lacks charm. I am not saying that things were always better in the past. They weren't. But things looked better, or at least more interesting, to me..."

How does Sempé go about accumulating the extraordinary detail in his cartoons? Does he do sketches from life? Does he doodle ideas on notepads?

"No, never. I create all my drawings here in my studio. I never - or almost never - draw from life and when I do, it is a disaster."

But then he must have an extraordinary memory for detail?

"Ah, no not at all. Ask my wife. If she sends me out for a newspaper, I come back with a loaf of bread. No, I have no memory at all. People are always pointing out to me that my details are all wrong. I draw Parisian buildings with balconies on the sixth floor when they should only be on the second, or the fifth, or something..."

And yet Sempé street scenes are always more Paris than Paris. What is important in a cartoon, he explains, is to "capture the essence of something, not to try to copy it".

Sempé is also sometimes accused of being sentimental and unable to deal with the darker side of life. One of his more recent cartoons, reproduced in the collection Sunny Spells, shows an innocent pianist under interrogation by a pompous TV interviewer.

The interviewer says: "When we consider the gaiety and merriment so characteristic of your work, communicating the joyful mood so sorely needed these days, should we not also ask whether, at the end of the day, it does not arise from a deep-seated egotism and total indifference to the misfortunes of others?"

I ask Sempé whether a previous interviewer had put a similar question to him. Was this his cartooned reply: not a self-criticism but a mockery of the question?

Yes, he says, in a way it was. The cartoon was partly suggested by the travails of a friend who had composed jolly songs in the 1930s and was later accused of being responsible for France's defeat by the Germans in 1940.

"But it is also true that I have often been attacked for seeing life in two dimensions, with the tragedy and darkness taken out. My reply to that is that I can only see the world as I see it and draw the world as I am able to draw it.

"If I tried to draw a cartoon about Iraq or Afghanistan, it would, first of all, be an enormous pretension on my part. Secondly, I simply could not do it. I mean, I could not do it successfully. Yes, of course, there are terrible things in the world but I am not sure that it is the cartoonist's job to address them."

At the risk of imposing the abstraction that Sempé abhors, one is left with the impression that he is inspired by the universal and the banal, not by the extraordinary or the ephemeral; by what happens on the street, not on the TV news.

I mention one of my favourite Sempé drawings, which appeared in Paris Match at the time of one of the perennial doping scandals in professional cycling. The cartoon shows a country road with steep hills passing over many ridges. In the foreground, tiny as usual, is an old lady who has dismounted from her bicycle. With an infinitely crafty expression, she is injecting herself with a hypodermic needle.

"You liked that?" Sempé asks, shaking his head. "No, it was no good at all that drawing. Too obvious. Too topical. What was I saying? That everyone doped themselves? But they don't. No, that was not really me."

A deep-seated egotism and total indifference to the misfortunes of others? Sempé?

No, more an infinite delight in the complexity and ambivalence - and the humour - of the everyday and the ordinary.

Jean-Jacques Sempé's books - 'Nothing is Simple', 'Everything is Complicated', 'Sunny Spells', 'Mixed Messages' and 'Monsieur Lambert', are published by Phaidon, £16.95. 'Nicholas on Holiday' by René Goscinny and Sempé, also published by Phaidon is priced £12.95.

To order any of these titles at a special price, including free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897

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