Obituary: Louis Calaferte

James Kirkup
Wednesday 04 May 1994 23:02 BST

Louis Calaferte, writer: born Turin 14 July 1928; married; died Dijon 1 May 1994.

LOUIS CALAFERTE's prolific work was largely autobiographical, a fantastic profusion of novels, short stories, essays, plays, poems and erotica of a particularly distinguished vulgarity that created genuine excitement in the most blase connoisseur. 'It's quality that gives the real kick,' he said.

Calaferte was born in Italy but emigrated to France at an early age with his poverty-stricken parents. His deprived childhood in a Lyons suburb provided the material for his first books. Until the age of 15 Calaferte hardly opened a book. He preferred to teach himself, and soon mastered the French language, especially its meaty, pungent sexual argot. During his wartime factory work he discovered the joys of reading. From then on, he lived for books, and was always surrounded by them.

At the Liberation, at the age of 17 he made for Paris, where he lived from hand to mouth. Unable to buy books, he used to shoplift them and return them after reading them. One such trophy made a lasting impression on him: Blaise Cendrars' Main coupee ('The Severed Hand') which taught him how one can write books based on personal experience. He sent the original manuscript of his first novel of 500 pages to another of his literary heroes, Joseph Kessel, who at once took an interest in the autodidact author, made him cut his text to 120 pages and got it published for him by Rene Julliard. Requiem des innocents was one of the successes of 1952, and Julliard issued Calaferte's second novel, Partage des vivants ('The Lot of the Living') in 1953.

But Calaferte did not really fit into the bitchy literary scene of post-war Paris, so in 1954 he returned to Lyons, where he got a job on local radio that lasted for 17 years. Like all writers who refuse to run with the herd, he was made to suffer for his defection, especially after the death of Julliard in the early Sixties, when Calaferte found it increasingly difficult to get published. His novel Septentrion took five years of his life. It was published by a minor firm. Its first words were: 'In the beginning there was sex', and it was banned immediately, though it was republished without fuss in 1984. The book earned him a sulphurous reputation as a writer of acrid eroticism. He chose great models - Celine and Genet - and always said he was not a pornographer but a 'pornocrat'.

Despite being considered a marginal freak, Calaferte went on writing. He was a better poet than most of the contemporary wordmongers, and in 1972 published his excellent first collection of poems, Ragtime. Through his radio work, he had started writing plays, and two of them, Chez les Tich and Mandibules, were mounted at the Odeon in 1973 and 1976, and often revived at cafe theatres.

There followed numerous publications of a bewildering variety, including Ebauche d'un autoportrait ('Sketch for a Self-Portrait') which was awarded the Prix de l'Academie Francaise in 1983. There was a collection of poems, Londoniennes (1985), and Promenades dans un parc (1987), short stories again crowned by the Academie Francaise.

It was his 1991 collection of poems, Haikai du jardin, which brought us together, for I was charmed by these brief three-liners which I qualified as 'haikuesque' because they were certainly not in traditional form. I wrote to Calaferte enclosing some samples of my translations and asking for permission to publish them. Eventually these haiku appeared in the Japanese international haiku magazine Ko and in the organ of the British Haiku Society, Blithe Spirit. Calaferte thanked me for my work and sent me a copy of a 'pink porno' magazine Les Feuillets Roses containing his long, macabre, highly sexed poem 'Noces funebres' ('Funereal Weddings') which appeared alongside classic erotica such as Apollinaire's Memoires d'un jeune Don Juan and Pierre Louys' 'Pybrac'. Calaferte's work bears comparison with those masters.

In one of his last letters, he sent me a white-on-black print of a 1967 handwritten poem 'Plions bagage' ('Let's Pack our Bags') which has this refrain: 'It's too soon / It's too late / It's time to depart . . .' A suitable conclusion for a man who had transcended his humble beginnings to die loaded with literary prizes and official honours, including a tardy recognition of his great qualities in the award of the Grand Prix National des Lettres in 1992. He leaves behind a vast corpus of work, among which his journals, numbering five volumes so far, are the most original and outspoken in modern French literature.

(Photograph omitted)

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