OBITUARY : Francois-Regis Bastide

James Kirkup
Thursday 18 April 1996 23:02

Francois-Regis Bastide was one of the last, and best, of what was once a common phenomenon - the man of letters who served his country well both as a diplomat and as an artist.

Bastide attended schools in Bayonne, in southern France, where he was given the usual thorough grounding (in those days) in philosophy, the Classics and modern languages. He was also a talented amateur musician who had taught himself to play the organ in his doctor father's Biarritz mansion, and then went on to become an accomplished pianist.

In October 1944 he joined General Leclerc's divisions in Germany, where he won the Croix de Guerre and developed a deep appreciation of all things German - music, literature, language. In politics, he was a militant socialist, and at the end of the Second World took up several appointments with cultural as well as political bearings: secretary-general of the Centre Culturel de Royaumont (1947) and pensionnaire of the Maison Descartes in Amsterdam (1950).

In 1953, Bastide became literary adviser to Seuil, a prominent publishing house that was to issue several of his books, and for whom he later took charge of an excellent musical series called "Solfeges". He began his literary career with three fine novels, Lettre de Baviere (1947), La Troisieme personne (1948) and La Jeune fille et la mort (1952). Saint-Simon, his biographical study of the great 17th-century memoirist, won the Grand Prix de la Critique in 1953. All are still selling in paperback. He was also one of the inspired producers and animateurs in the early days of the ORTF (Office de la Radiodiffusion et Television Francaise) from 1949, working on dramatic and literary programmes and a famous discussion series Le Masque et la Plume on both radio and television. He was to become President of the trade union Syndicat National CFDT (Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail) from 1968 to 1976.

His experience of drama production at ORTF led to his joining the reading panel for the Comedie Francaise and the Odeon (1968-75). As a socialist he became a municipal councillor for his home town, Biarritz, in 1977, and the national delegate for the Socialist Party in 1978.

Meanwhile, he was publishing a series of novels and essays from Seuil and Gallimard, of which Les Adieux won the Prix Femina in 1956. It was followed by a veiled autobiographical account of his life at the Maison Descartes in Amsterdam, Flora d'Amsterdam (1957), La Vie revee (1962) and Le Troisieme Concerto, awarded the Grand Prix de la Television in 1963. This dramatic fantasy is about a concert pianist who has nightmares of having to interpret the (non-existent) third piano concerto of Maurice Ravel.

His play, whose title is a tribute both to Germany and to Giraudoux, Siegfried 78, was produced in 1978. He wrote the adaptation and dialogues for a memorable television production of Flaubert's L'Education sentimentale in 1973. He was a member of the jury for the Prix Medicis, where he sat with that other great French Germanist Marthe Robert.

With the triumph of Francois Mitterrand in the elections of 1982, Bastide was appointed ambassador to Denmark (1982-85), then to Austria (1985-88). Then he became ambassador and permanent delegate to Unesco (1988-90). He was made a Minister Plenipotentiary hors classe in 1991. In the same year, the Academie Francaise awarded him the Prix Henri de Regnier in recognition of his entire literary output. All these glittering posts and his experiences in them appeared from time to time in his novels, in which he casts a witty, ironical eye upon the social intrigues and hollow splendours of the diplomatic world. Yet he was never world-weary, for he had immense love of life, and his wit was never too scathing, for it was of the kind that the French call spirituel, that is, humour with a gently malicious sparkle.

Bastide's last work, L'Homme au desir d'amour lointain (1994), is set in the imaginary kingdom of Villanovie in southern Europe. He employs the transparent device of writing about his elderly hero, the French ambassador to the Firbankian court of Queen Ilma Regina, with whom he has an affair, in the third person, yet, giving him his own name, as if in mockery of that literary trick. Bastide is the familiar figure of a man in his sixties who is eager to experience a final amorous adventure. Some of the best passages are classic meditations on old age and the absurd agonies of romantic love. "If you do not understand that love, true love, crazy love makes you want to run away from it all, it means that you are the stupidest of men," the hero tells himself.

There are also loving references to some of Bastide's literary masters - Rilke, Valery Larbaud, Stendhal, all great travellers, as was the author. In the end, the hero does indeed flee from the love he has awakened: "Romanticism is a thing of the past. All we can hope for in our old age is the comfort of nostalgia."

He implies that only a woman can find the courage to cherish romantic passion. A man finds himself confronted only with his own sexual urgings, and finds nothingness.

Francois-Regis Bastide was a gentleman of great charm and elegance. His long, witty face, with its touch of melancholy in the drooping eyes, was reminiscent of Cocteau's. Indeed, whenever they appeared in public together, Cocteau would flatter himself by introducing Bastide as his twin brother, "only slightly younger". But Bastide's multifarious genius hid deeper roots than Cocteau's. He lived a passionately committed life with admirable lightness of touch that concealed a rich humanity.

Francois-Regis Bastide, writer and diplomat: born Biarritz 1 July 1926; died Paris 16 April 1996.

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