Obituary: Jean Cau

James Kirkup
Wednesday 30 June 1993 00:02 BST

Jean Cau, writer: born Bram, L'Aude, France 8 July 1925; died Paris 18 June 1993.

ONE OF the leading literary and intellectual figures of the post-war era in France, Jean Cau was a man of the Midi who like his parents in their small home town of Bram, near Carcassonne, spoke the langue d'oc and who always referred to himself as a Catalan, though his passionate admiration of everything Spanish was mainly confined to Andalusia, its bullfights, flamenco and beautiful women of the city of Seville.

He attended the Lycee Paul-Sabatier in Carcassonne before entering the prestigious Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he excelled in the classics, French literature and philosophy. He graduated in philosophy, and in 1947 became the personal assistant of Jean-Paul Sartre, who took him under a fatherly wing: Cau was later to declare that he was Sartre's 'insubordinate son'. It was inevitable that eventually Jean should rebel against this overpowering father-figure, who was not at all surprised when it happened, for, as he wrote in his autobiography Les Mots (1964), 'There is no such thing as a good father, that's for sure; it is not men themselves who are to blame for that, but the ties of fatherhood that are rotten to the core.'

But, for the next 10 years or so, Jean Cau led the ideal existence of an existential cafe intellectual. In the Fifties, before the tourist hordes drove them out, Sartre, Beauvoir, Genet, Cau and many of the contributors to Sartre's revue Les Temps modernes could be seen in the Flore, the Deux-Magots, the Royal, the Pergola, discussing literature and philosophy and politics and scribbling their essays, poems and journals. Juliette Greco was their muse, and Cau recalls seeing her dancing barefoot outside the church of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, despite the roughness of the cobbles. This early 'happening' was widely reported in the press, as were all the escapades of the group - Koestler and Camus, dead drunk, challenging each other to crawl on hands and knees across the Place Saint-Michel, arguing about who won and getting into a fight that left Camus with a black eye.

Cau then began a brilliant career as a journalist in the pages of France Observateur, L'Express (under Jean-Paul Servan-Schreiber and Francoise Giroud, whom Cau was later to excoriate in his memoirs), Le Figaro Litteraire and Paris-Match. Cau also began producing novels, essays, short stories and, later, a series of vituperative pamphlets against the socialists. His fine novel, now forgotten, La Pitie de Dieu, won the Prix Goncourt in 1961.

Then he broke with Sartre during his second, dialectical materialist period of 'engagement' which produced La Critique de la raison dialectique and Situations, after which he rejected the Nobel Prize in 1964. Cau saw this as a mere publicity stunt. He began his fulgurant career as a right- wing pamphleteer in the tradition of Mauriac and Raymond Aron. Socialist politicians and bearded Marxist- Stalinist intellectuals and professors were attacked with ever-increasing venom in brilliant displays of cruel and entertaining invective. One of his parting blows against Sartre was: 'I owe him nothing, yet I owe him everything - he is a prodigious boxer of the intellect, but without the slightest trace of sensitivity.' Sartre countered with: 'Don't worry, Jean, I've a brain cast in pure gold.'

His books of essays bear often revealing titles like Lettre ouverte aux tetes de chien de l'Occident ('Open Letter to the Dog's Heads of the West', 1967), Pourquoi la France (1975), Les Ecuries de l'Occident (which recalls the Herculean legend of the Augean stables, 1970) and Reflexions dures pour une epoque molle ('Hard Thoughts about a Soft Epoch', 1972), in which he describes de Gaulle as 'the boneless wonder'.

In a tightly knit literary society, such attacks were not welcomed; in their effort to support one another in a culture of declining sales, French writers bend over backwards to be kind to one another in print, whatever they might say about one another behind their backs, and Jean Cau's harsh truths hit home painfully. He became a literary outcast. But that did not stop him writing and publishing with reliable firms. One of my treasured books is his Croquis de memoire ('Sketches from Memory', 1985), in which he writes, usually scathingly, about a wide range of political and literary 'sacred monsters'. His portraits of Mitterrand, Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing, Khrushchev and de Gaulle are totally irreverent and savagely funny. He describes a younger Mitterrand, with black hair, white face, trying to pick up women outside the Royal in Saint-Germain, and later as president 'looking like Dracula (this was before he got his teeth arranged), a red rose (the Socialist symbol) in his bloodless hand, parading round the dusty tombs in the Pantheon like a plaster statue'. Pompidou is a bottom-pinching rustic innkeeper, Giscard d'Estaing a spotless tailor's dummy, Khrushchev cooing like a dove as he pronounces the Russian word for maize, koukourouza, during a press conference, and looking, in his wide, floppy trousers, like an overfed pigeon with feathered feet and puffed- out chest rolling his tiny eyes from side to side as if looking for a titbit.

The literary bunch don't get off lightly, either - Lacan and Barthes are described without pity at the gym, trying to develop some muscles in their flabby white flesh, Hemingway is shown to be totally deficient in his knowledge of Spanish and bullfighting and the true soul of Spain, after which 'Don Ernesto' never speaks to him again. There is a quick sketch of Garbo being accosted by tactless British tourists on a Greek island: 'Excuse us, but are you Greta Garbo?' to which la divine replies sulkily: 'Yes - sometimes.' Cau had a puritan streak in his hot southern blood, and I noticed that while Sartre drank whisky at the Flore, Cau rather ostentatiously sipped Evian. He describes being shocked by Carson MacCullers when he interviews her early in the morning and her hands are shaking so much she can hardly hold her coffee-cup. She explains that she is an alcoholic, and cannot function properly until she has a few shots of bourbon. He forgives her because she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - something Cau always felt himself to be, despite his success with women.

Of his passion for all things Spanish, Cau ('caullaborationniste' his enemies called him, for he pretended to admire Franco) writes movingly: 'She is a mother to me' - a very Latin devotion to the motherland. He was a great bullfight aficionado and attended all the corridas in Spain and the south of France. He knew every torero in this despicable sport, and was a good judge of a 700-kilo bull. He wrote about bullfighting in wonderfully stylish, fast-paced essays that almost persuaded me to find some beauty in the slaughter of an innocent beast. They are collected in books with such eloquent titles as Les Oreilles et la Queue ('The Ears and the Tail'), La Folie Corrida and Sevillanes, in which he declared that 'the bull is the one creature in the world that, if you love him, can only be approached if you kill him' - a wilful perversion of Wilde's 'Yet each man kills the thing he loves.' Wilde goes on to say that some do it 'with a bitter look' - that certainly applies to Jean Cau and the friendships he deliberately destroyed.

Cau often wrote essays for one of my local newspapers, Midi Libre, and I shall never forget the one he wrote about the death of his favourite torero, Paquirri, in a third-rate bullring at Pozoblanco, near Cordoba. He included a detailed description of how the bull's extra-sharp horn corkscrewed into the body, ripping it open, and how Paquirri, on the point of death, was able to guide the surgeons' hands, for he knew intimately the course of the bull's horn through his flesh. He lay dead with a face like Christ's, says Cau - another typically Latin reaction to death. His own face, at the end of his life, was haggard but still handsome, defiant, insubordinate, as if he rejected death by cancer as he had rejected Sartre.

His last book was called L'Ivresse des intellectuels ('Intoxicated Intellectuals', 1992). It is good to know that this is not his final work, for just before his death he had completed a volume of memoirs, Composition francaise, which will appear in September. It will be one of the great events of the publishing season.

(Photograph omitted)

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