To be born on the Day of the Dead might seem to presage a gloomy future. Maurice Roche, unique among contemporary French writers, who was born on that fatidic date, refused to acknowledge the coincidence as an omen of catastrophe.
He spent much of his life making a mock of mortality. His irreverent spirit took a macabre delight in deriding those who took death seriously. He would quote "The Latest Decalogue" by that disabused Victorian Arthur Hugh Clough, with whom he had much in common:
Thou shalt not kill; but needst not
Officiously to keep alive.
Derision was his only defence against a life he despised.
Roche spent the war as a student in Lyons, then moved to Paris to start work as a journalist on Ce Soir (1946-48). Like almost every young man with literary leanings, he founded a short-lived magazine, Elements, in 1951. He did some reporting for various journals, and contributed to reviews both French and foreign.
His first book, Monteverdi (1960), was the first to be published in French on that divine composer. In the same year he composed music for the poems of Henri Pichette's Epiphanies, the first of Roche's many ventures into song and opera.
He made his mark in 1966 with a very original first novel, Compact, which Philippe Sollers brought to the attention of Seuil. It was published in his "Tel Quel" series. In a preface Sollers praises its liberty of form, its grim humour, its amused indifference to what are usually considered serious matters: disease, pain, loneliness and death itself. Recently, it was sumptuously re-edited by Tristram respecting all Roche's typographical eccentricities, and in seven colours, a different colour for each of the seven voices. Yet Roche never belonged to the "Tel Quel" group or the creators of the nouveau roman. He remained an exception, almost an outsider, unclassifiable.
Circus (1972), Codex (1974) and Opera bouffe (1975) are notable for their witty subversions of language and literary form, and belong to the tradition of Sterne, Rabelais, Jarry, Queneau and Jules Romains. They are composed of almost random fragments and short sequences, aphorisms, paroxysmal phrases and absurd black melodramatic interventions. Roche's gay obsession with death and dying made some readers feel distinctly uncomfortable, as did succeeding titles like Macabre, ou triomphe de la haute intelligence (1979), Testament and Maladie Melodie (both 1980), and especially Je ne vais pas bien mais il faut que j'y aille ("I'm Not Feeling Very Well But I'll Just Have To Get On With It"), which in 1987 won the Grand Prix de l'Humour Noir.
The first section of this grotesque gallimaufry is very topical because it introduces a racing cyclist in the Tour de France who specialises in contre la montre record-breaking and is nicknamed "Le Chrono" by the sporting press. It starts:
He was before his time . . . which was very short, short as eternal oblivion . . . He was cremated and a few grams of his ashes were collected in a sandglass that ran for three minutes only.
In Qui n'a pas vu Dieu n'a rien vu ("He Who Has Not Seen God Has Seen Nothing" - a sarcastic title from 1990), he writes: "I wasn't born in those days, but now I'm catching up with myself." He attacks hospitals and the medical profession with light-hearted bitterness: "In the science of medicine's present state - and given your own - it is possible to estimate (barring accidents) the exact time of your approaching demise" - another topical quote.
In Je ne vais pas bien mais il faut que j'y aille he continues in the same vein:
I live death at every moment. I get the feeling I came into this world with death on the brain . . . In our family, ever since the remotest antiquity, we have kept up the custom of passing away so many times, it has become hereditary.
One should first of all die, then begin to live - but why live anyhow?
Maurice Roche was a prose writer of great ingenuity and charm, with a love of abstruse word-play that makes him almost untranslatable, and despite the lifelong duelling with death, full of sour puckish humour that sometimes makes one wince, then giggle helplessly. Like all true farceurs, he was deadly serious.
In Maladie Melodie he wrote: "Is the pain going away, or am I just getting used to it?" Not a bad joke for the Day of the Dead.
Maurice Roche, writer: born Clermont-Ferrand, France 2 November 1924; died Sevres, France 19 July 1997.
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