Part 2


Towards ten o’clock my grandmother would put into a basket some things to eat and we would go out to find my grandfather in the fields. Having no machine, he needed to work much longer hours than the others. After a fair walk down little dusty paths we would locate him by the scraping of his whetstone on the blade of his scythe and find him at work in the golden lane he had cut into a field of wheat or in a green tangle of tall grass. We would lay out our lunch in the open air at the foot of a tree, hands sometimes surprised to feel the water of an unseen spring, and then we would get down to our share in the work.  Working with wheat was beyond me; it needs strength because wheat is heavy and it needs care to avoid loss of grain. But I could cope with the minor operations of the harvest, the movements endlessly repeated in the humming heat, among the never-ending swaths of dried grass that needed to be turned over in the sun, gathered up into long rows and then into round stacks, then loaded onto a hay-wagon hauled from place to place by a poor horse mottled with grey flies. It was one of my duties to drive them away with a hazel switch.

My grandfather had made me some tools that suited my size, a rake with a single row of prongs (to halve the risk of damage if I happened to fall on it) and a little wooden fork with carefully blunted points. With these I was deemed to be taking a little exercise while playing at making myself useful.  In reality I hated work in the fields, however slight my contribution. The meadows were too vast, the wagon too tall, the sky too harsh and the horse too big. The best moment of the day was when we unwrapped our lunch in the shade, the block of Comte cheese wrapped in a damp cloth with a red border, the loaf softened on the side that had been touching the bottle of lemonade tinged with a little wine.  But even this moment of refreshment was spoiled by the prospect of our return to the house and the hour of perspiring toil we would have to endure in the dust and the flying chaff as we piled huge armloads of hay under the rafters of the barn.  The only thing I really liked about nature was water, clear, free, carrying no memories and, as my old Homer said, bearing no harvest.

My grandfather proclaimed himself a socialist, a profession of faith that cannot have done much to advance his career in the gendarmerie.  The temple a few miles away never saw him except at burials. He never spoke of religion, not even to sneer at parish priests, a race in any event unknown in our canton.  The pastor used occasionally to visit our village but so far as I can remember his interest in it never got him as far as visiting our house and since I was taken to the temple exclusively for burials, I had no idea of what he did for a living, this man in black respected by the Lutherans, distrusted by the pietists.

   My grandfather may have had no religion but he had principles of which he gave the benefit to those who needed it.  He was a born redresser of wrongs and took the side of right and justice in all village quarrels. His interventions were not invariably well received and with those who did not welcome them he would communicate by means of placards on which in large letters he would write messages such as “Pray less and stop stealing”.  These he would stick up by the roadside at the corner of his property, chuckling up his sleeve. The village bore him no malice for these stern measures; he “knew what’s what with plants” and was good at dealing with nasty injuries and people frequently turned to him for help while awaiting the arrival of the doctor from our local administrative centre, he being a conscientious practitioner with a goatee but impossible to get in touch with.  In our bedroom there was an ancient apothecary’s desk full of dried herbs and powders in boxes and wrappers all meticulously labeled.  I was forbidden to touch them but I would not have dreamed of doing so. I had for my amusement the wooden toys that skilful poverty had fashioned for me and in my presence, there in the carpentry workshop with its heaps of farming items brought in for repair. Not many children know the delight of seeing their future present taking shape little by little before their eyes, a shaving at a time, delicately brought into being by the rough hand that a moment before had been using pick or spade and was now working a subtle magic. Ever since then I have understood why, in fairy tales, the enchanter is often depicted as an old man.

It goes without saying that I also had a whistle of elder wood, a bow of hazel wood, arrows of dried reeds and a sort of garden syringe with which to souse any wandering dog that got into our cabbage patch.  At the end of the year I also had two or three small coins with which to buy sticks of liquorice.  My Schwob grand-mother would annually distribute a half-napoleon among her grand-children. My grandfather could not compete with that but he would put his little coins in old cough-sweet boxes; this for me rendered  the present unspeakably precious. He would always choose boxes with sliding lids to avoid any risk of me cutting myself. Today I wonder whether he bought cough-sweets for his cough or for the boxes.

Sunday was the day of the Lord for both Lutherans and pietists. The former would occasionally visit the temple, the  latter would walk in little groups to their meeting, each under the skeptical gaze of the Philistines. For us, it meant the weekly wash in the deep running water of the trout stream, after which my grandfather would rub my head with a preparation of camomile enhanced with rum and curl the blond ringlets I retained for quite some time. My mother’s young brother who lived with us used to take me fishing, paying not the slightest attention to any regulations.  He was an adventurous young man, given to running away from home and possessed of all the gifts I most envied, strength, boldness, a taste for violent games, the sort of bronzed and unkempt good looks that one imagines in the Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. My mother had another brother, fair-haired, delicate, a musician; his gentle ways calmed the neighbourhood’s misgiving as to the unteachable restlessness of the former. He died very young “of his chest”, as people used to say then. I do not know whether I knew him or whether the image I retain of a sort of violin-playing angel coming down one evening into a farmyard and departing well before the dawn is drawn genuinely from my memory or from stories told to me about his charm and his sad fate.  He too had been handsome as indeed was every single person on that side of the family with the exception of my poor self. I used to look without pleasure at my dim reflection in windows or on the blade of the kitchen knives which gave me sight of little more than my nose.  


My grandmother, slim and tiny beneath a cloud of lovely white hair, was like a bird held prisoner by a kindly disposed but bad-tempered policeman.  She used to sing to herself all day long, in the kitchen, in the loft, beside the stream when doing her laundry, out in the fields with a rake in her hand, out in the woods picking blackberries. The songs were all from the repertoire of the Belle Epoque, waltzes playing at nightfall and gentlemen each one dancing with his ladylove. Life for her was a mournful operetta, performed without any hope of an audience on the bleak stage of poverty by a frail Cinderella worn down with work and who would never, never, see her grey dress turn into a ball gown and her pumpkins turn into a carriage.   

When evening came she would take me on her lap and softly sing to me a lullaby of her own making, “Away, away, far away, away, away, far away.” The song had no other words but she would make it last a good quarter of an hour and her “Away, away, far away” in tones so varied would send me into a smiling dream and so to sleep. It must be to her that I owe a patience greater than some can muster for litanies in the liturgy that seem to them too long but which seem to me too short.

Once a week, in high summer, she would go off to sell her vegetables at the market. I would see her seeing out early in the morning on the pot-holed main street of the town, scarcely taller than the garden fences past which she would push her little cart of beans, peas and carrots, stepping round a puddle or occasionally tripping on a stone. She would come back in the afternoon with a few coins, take off her muddy shoes, put on her sabots and resume the humble round of household duties that had been interrupted by this brief moment as a market-gardener: the animals to attend to, the men to feed, the housework to be done, the grandchild to put to sleep, the day to be brought to its end with the shutting of doors in the stable, the barn, the house and last of all the bedroom where she was the last to lie down after blowing out the lamp.

 I never had from her anything but cakes and cuddles and those good strong country kisses that sound like the popping of champagne corks, and I never saw her angry or even in a bad mood.  Her sorrows and vexations all went into her singing which passed them on to the other little birds and they carried them away.  She was gentleness itself, grief accepted, tenderness at its most vulnerable, resignation at its uttermost and everything that can be put into music by one who has nothing more to say.

She did not so much walk as scurry, unceasingly, from the oven to the kitchen sink, to the hens with their grain, to the market with her little cart, with the energy and abruptness of a mechanical toy wound up to the full, unwearying, at least that is what we believed – we never saw her seated if not leaning forward, her feet drawn up beneath the chair and herself ready to move on.  She died by no means old, far from it, of the disease that used to be called pernicious anaemia; it now has a more scientific name but is no less fatal.

  She had been taken to the Protestant hospital in Besancon, where I went to see her with my mother. On our last visit, I seem to remember that the town and its fine houses which in our eyes stood for everything that was opulent in the world, was damp and empty. The religious sisters who ran the hospital, knowing how matters were with her, had put her in quite a large room with a tall curtain-less window that looked out over a garden. She was a white shape beneath her white hair, even more tiny and, as it were, huddled in the middle of the bed as if not venturing to occupy all of it, no more in revolt than she had ever been, no less gently welcoming, astonished that she was being looked after and by ladies of education; these would from time to time half-open the door and withdraw without her having been able to think of anything to ask for. She was as without thought for herself as she had always been, and her last words were of compassion for the sufferings of another. With her weakened eyes she could no longer read but she would often glance at a crucifix hanging on the wall opposite her bed. One day, the last of her life, she gazed at it for a long time and, further than ever before from thinking of her own fate, “Ah, the poor man!” she said in a tone of gentle pity, the last tiny cry of the exhausted bird that has hopped to the very end of the branch that is about to break. 

Cared for by these two old people – they were perhaps not so old after all – who desired nothing better than to send me back at the end of the holidays to my parents, bigger and better and well instructed in all that concerned the countryside, I was a happy child even if in a village that was not all that happy itself.

Colombier-Chatelot was far from being what nowadays is termed “a consumer society”. It was rather a “non-consumer society”, in which the thing was to take as little as possible of the transient goods of this world, to be contented with little, with less, with nothing. Nobody could support himself on the produce of a plot of land endlessly sub-divided, so everybody had a second job. One man would be a carter, another a carpenter. Some, more unusually, assembled or repaired watches on their window sills during the hours of daylight, and nothing could be more touching than to watch those thick peasant fingers, crackled like earthenware, patiently persuading the tiny little wheels to hum along together in their metal shell.  Many families used to send their sons and daughters to find employment at the chair workshop in the next village or in the huge factory in the town which every morning sent out buses to collect its labour force from all over the departement.

But these salaries added to everything else still left everyone poor. Many of the houses had a floor of beaten earth and the barn had a deck of wooden planks only to prevent the heavy hay-carts cutting ruts. People asked of life only the most basic of its gifts, much of what was necessary being regarded as superfluous. Their existence was an endless succession of daily obligations, recurring with the seasons, from which nobody had either the means or even the thought of escaping.  Temptation took the traditional form of fantasizing about land rights, of the field with shifting borders, of the boundary stone that moved by night from one hole to another just a little further away. If there were any other temptations, I was not allowed to see them.

The pietists called themselves “the elect” and derived from that a measure of pride with an extra reserve of patience. We had a quite different idea of election, which to our way of thinking had to come not from above but from below; we as unbelievers had a morality founded on reason and it took us no further than the bleak satisfaction of duty well done, of a conscience at peace with itself; on the most favourable showing it took one towards that “better future” which had already replaced the next world as the object of hope for ordinary people. Setting aside the prohibitions peculiar to religion, our conception of good and evil was more or less the same as that of the pietists and Lutherans. It was simply that there were some things that were done and some that were not, it depending on the individual to say whether this was pursuant to God’s will or human wisdom. But every single one, believer or unbeliever, carried an identical burden, slowly, towards the same destination, along a road embellished at very long intervals with a marriage feast under the trees, a beautiful summer, a tune on the accordion. My belief is that hardly anybody asked themselves any questions. For those to whom religion had given all the answers, any further questioning would have been thought unwise; for the others, the unbelievers, no explanation was expected from anywhere.

Yes, my childhood was happy and, all things considered, it was not difficult to make me happy. A pencil and a few sheets of paper were all it needed to ensure hours of peace for all around me. When I had finished with my paper, I would sketch on the back of waxcloth, on the plywood of chairs, in fact on anything that could be scribbled on without obvious damage, sketch people, trains, complicated arabesques that aroused the admiration of my family. A drawing had something about it like a feat of magic; it was reality caught in a net, pinned down on the white page; it made them feel as amazed as if out of the void I had pulled up a beautiful fish, and I was never left without pencils.  At a 70

time when distrust was the attitude of the bourgeoisie to any suggestion of interest in art, an attitude now changed to respectful astonishment by the way in which masterpieces today fetch prices that qualify them as safe investments, simple folk had on the contrary the greatest respect for “the gift of drawing” which made the one who had it a being set apart, to be handled with care.  Those who lack everything will also lack the means of expressing themselves, and drawing is the means that best attracts attention and rewards it. For my part I have sometimes asked myself where this gift came from, indeed this fascination that was found nowhere else in our family. I think it was the natural outcome of my idleness which made me want to form my own image of the world at home so as to avoid the trouble of confronting it on its own ground.

Whatever the truth of it, my habit of spending hours in front of a sheet of paper from which life and movement would never escape gave me very early on a taste for a certain kind of solitude that was protected by my remarkable capacity for getting out of things. Cheerful and easy-going, I can see now that as a child I was extraordinarily absent to such an extent that I cannot write “I was there, such and such a thing happened to me.” Whereas the briefest moment of dreaming or recollection is enough for me to recover intact all the sensations of that distant time, the taste of the translucent white currants by the garden gate, the cool water of the stream against my ankles, the thin line of moving vegetation in the middle of the canal, the drone of my grandmother’s sing-song in her kitchen, I cannot recall a single anecdote or incident in which I was involved; I retain a memory of how voices sounded, not of anything said or of anything that happened to me, perhaps because my folk always made sure that nothing did.

     Or almost nothing. They had no control over war and peace.  Thus it happens that one of my few memories, which is also the oldest, is of the Belfort cellar in which my mother and I were wounded by a bomb weighing seven kilos, then a respectable weight. I had refused to leave my place at the skirts of my mother in order to get into the great chest of wood stuffed with straw in which the other residents had, immediately the siren sounded, stowed their children.  In the face of my resistance we were placed just underneath the ventilator shaft, a position deemed to be safe because, when the shells came, the shrapnel would pass harmlessly over our heads. On that particular day several bombs fell on the town, dropped by black aeroplanes shaped like crosses, called Taubes. One of these bombs fell in front of our house and tore up seven metres of pavement. The sandbags massed in front of the shaft altered the trajectory of the shrapnel and falsified expectations; the only persons wounded not only in the cellar but in the entire town were my mother and myself, she in her right arm and I in my left foot. I was two years old. I retain of this moment the soundless image of a sort of crypt, peopled with shadows, in which the faint glow of a lantern at the far end gave a little light to a few children huddled in a crèche. 


In the hospital a doctor examined our wounds, judged mine to be really nasty and spoke of amputating my foot in order to avoid complications. It was war-time and surgeons were extremely busy.  My mother, energy personified, immediately threatened to throw herself with me out of the window. It was put to her that my tendons were severed, that my toes would never grow, that I would have a deformed foot, quite apart from the distinct possibility of gangrene. It was all in vain, my mother stood her ground and since there was that in her blue eyes which made it impossible to doubt her determination, it was decided not to amputate my foot. As it happened, our wounds healed and when we left the hospital we were carrying our bomb splinters in a big box with a clasp in the shape of a shell.

  In the train that took us back to my grandparents an officer clinking with medals and military accessories noticed our bandages, asked what had happened to us, cursed the barbarity of the Hun, detached one of his medals and leant over me in order to fasten it to my coat; this may have been in order to get a better look at my mother who was very young and very blonde.

The Route Nationale passed some kilometers away, leaving us isolated from current movements and exchanges of opinion, from passing traffic of the military or of the fairground, also of politicians.  At Colombier-Chatelot there were none of those  confrontational public meetings which from time to time thawed Foussemagne. A marquis ruled the region, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and doubtless to be followed by his son and grandson.   Everyone except the reds voted for him without question, out of habit, for his qualities or his quality; the base-born elector was perhaps gratified to put the marquis under an obligation to his former serfs. In any case politics had a bad reputation among those of the right; they were something a man should not touch any more than alcohol save in  case of emergency and then only to     avoid a greater evil.  A polling station was just a little suspect; one needed My Lord’s permission to visit it.

It goes without saying that conversely, on the left, politics were considered the highest activity of mind, the finest of careers barring only that of doctor.  It was in fact to politics that my parents owed their having met. My mother had an enquiring mind and had heard my father speaking about socialism to a working class audience on the outskirts of Belfort, with all the vigour of his twenty-five years, a fighting intelligence, a wonderful voice.  From that day onwards she followed him from meeting to meeting, for love of socialism, and ended at the mairie. When she told me this story, I did not really understand it. For me my parents had always been my parents and I could not imagine them not having been so at any given moment of their lives. The candour, the unassuming decency of their life together had given me an idea of marriage as of something indestructible and which, having no end, also had no beginning.

  They shared with one other tenant a small apartment in a Belfort road at the end of which could be seen the bleached grass of some waste ground. My mother used to sell on the street the newspaper of the socialist federation, edited from start to finish by my father, at that time a teacher dismissed for his revolutionary activities and reduced to penury. But for him politics took the place of all else. He would often say that he had taken to politics like a duck to water. At the age of ten he had made his choice; he was going to be a journalist and a deputy.

He did not have to wait to become a journalist. Every evening on the benches of his primary school he would compose, for his own pleasure and that of his little comrades, a leaflet cut out of wrapping paper and entitled “The Boer” as a mark of respect for the republicans of the Transvaal, heroes of a forgotten colonial war. At the age of thirteen he was the regular correspondent of a paper in eastern France whose editor was inspired to invite all his contributors to a banquet. This admirably democratic initiative afforded him the shock of meeting a political commentator in short trousers, one who was definitely not there, as was initially supposed, to make his father’s apologies for non-attendance.

Admitted to the Teachers College with a dispensation relating to his age and with a State scholarship covering half the fees, he was to emerge from it at an age at which others were still trying to get in. But he was very young and had committed the imprudence of getting himself talked about, by reason not only of his small-scale regional publications but also of the articles he sent to the newspaper of Jean Jaures, “L’Humanite”, and of the role he took in public meetings all over the departement as an all-round dissident.  He was therefore allotted a sort of mountain school in the Vosges, empty for two thirds of the year, in winter because of the snow and in summer because of work in the fields.


It was in these uplands that he was to meet dismissal, after the domiciliary visitation of a prosecutor and a judge, jointly commissioned to instruct and to repress, and who acted in concert against the spirit of the law. They were meant to prove that my father was responsible for a slight rise in temperature registered in the region’s barracks where the soldiery had evinced a certain discontent at being kept in the ranks after their time of service.  They were unable to prove any such thing since there was no truth in it but their enquiry was simply a formality. Its negative outcome could not prevent it being followed within three weeks by the most positive dismissal.  Even if schoolmasters were not

expressly prohibited from being socialists, it was nonetheless strongly conveyed to them that they should not too openly profess their socialism, condemned as a disorder of the mind by a bourgeois society innocently reposing on the wisdom of the poor, the patience of the poor, the longsuffering of the poor, and which greatly disliked the sensation of this pillar starting to shift beneath it.

Now a socialist is what my father had been since the age of thirteen. It was a speech of Jaures which had, he said, “revealed to him the promised land”, glimpsed through and beyond the stucco and tottering arabesques of the Belle Epoque, a “dame aux camelias” ominously shivering and shortly to die of an exposed frontier. Like those birds which fly around the façade of a cathedral and find entry through some tall window, the bold intelligence of the young student of the primary school had been caught up with delight into the vast echoing system constructed by the greatest tribune in the history of French socialism. Detached from the resolutely down to earth concerns which at the time constituted the entirety of the radical left’s politics and carried up into the air by the unique visionary power of that eloquence, he was going to become totally and exclusively a militant for whom everything was reducible to politics rather as for ancient philosophers everything was reducible to the concept of being.

Thenceforward his family would see very little of him and the departement would soon become too narrow a field for him and his talents. At the age of twenty-nine he was the General Secretary of the Socialist Party, and he established his little family on the fifth floor of a building with no lift in the fifteenth arrondissement, above a coal store lying alongside the garden of a convent. “There are no buildings opposite us”, my mother used to say with pride. From our balcony you could make out the two top storeys of the Eiffel Tower, for the time being in the service of a car manufacturer whose glory it proclaimed in letters of fire. Of our three rooms the one I slept in was during the day my father’s office. I slept facing a portrait of Karl Marx and beneath a pen-and-ink portrait of Jules Guesde and a photograph of Jaures. A respected doctrinaire Marxist, listened to but not understood, Jules Guesde with his long hair and tangled beard looked somewhat like a willow tree in a storm and his imposing rather melancholy gaze appeared to avoid Jaures  at his side, Jaures with his beard thrust forward in the style of Darius’s Immortals, the image of Mediterranean optimism, of the joy of living in a world that was going to be so beautiful, the delight of successful advocacy and of seeing so many people struggling towards the fraternal city that is discovered for them in the far reaches of history and pointed out to them and towards which they are propelled by a gale of prophecies. 


It follows that I lived with a socialist Janus with contradictory profiles, simultaneously eloquent of studious retirement and of creative improvisation, the fertile silence of the reading room and the abounding energy of one remaking society.

I was fascinated by Karl Marx. He was a lion, a sphinx, a solar storm. The monumental forehead stood out from a cloud of silvery hair like an impregnable tower of thought. His gaze, of extraordinary penetration, pursued all round the room any person minded to contradict him and reduced all such to a state of crushed objection. The outline of his moustache created that illusion of a smile which must once have greeted in the thinker’s unobtrusive London lodgings illustrious visitors named Leo Tolstoy and Elisee Reclus who ended their visit without having heard a single treacherous word of politeness. Jules Guesde and Jaures were men of their epoch, the former by virtue of his melancholy and the latter by virtue of his humanism.  Karl Marx was outside time. There was in him something indestructible, namely, the certitude, written in stone, that he was right. This block of compacted dialectic watched over my infant sleep.

I knew the cemetery of Pere Lachaise before I ever heard of Father Christmas. At the age of five, my parents having nobody in Paris with whom to leave me, I used to accompany them in the pilgrimages to the Mur des Federes, the traditional destination of revolutionary demonstrations. I saw that wall come snow, come sun, come mud, come flowers. It was the end of the world, the seawall against which the flood of human beings would break in a red foam of bouquets and banners.  I had learned how to behave, sitting for hours at the foot of the platforms while above my head resounded speeches that left on me the impression of a continuous storm carrying on its wings so many wrongs, so many flags. In front of me faces without number uplifted on a field of wild roses listened to the tale of all they had suffered and they wept.

Then all voices would hush and from end to end of the silence that had fallen the wind would catch the red folds of the flags. A sound would rise from the earth like the lament of an unfinished resurrection, the roaring of “Foule esclave, debout, debout..”  The uncanny chanting came like thunder out of a limitless hope that never reached as far as happiness, eyes would fill with a sort of prayer mingled with defiance. The music of the International had like a canticle its slow passages and its crescendos. Socialism was living through its own age of cathedrals.


It was a religion and like every religion at its beginnings, it excluded all others. It was not an economic theory – among the Marxists I met, those who had read Karl Marx were as rare as Catholics who have read the Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas – it was a faith: man was good, although men may not always have been so, and man had taken in hand the gigantic task of his own salvation. Among us Jaures and Jules Guesde were accorded a reverence like that given to the Fathers of the Church; Karl Marx, the Moses of all proletarian exiles, had led us out of the Egypt of traditionalism and submission. He had vanished long since in the fogs of the Thames but the violence of his thought went

with us still and would carry us irresistibly towards that world, free of contradictions, whose coming he had predicted. We were brothers, not simply by virtue of our shared beliefs but by the power of the blood shed in the unending human sacrifice of the millennia without justice. Traditional religions have the same belief that men are brothers. But our brotherhood was not exactly like theirs. Traditional religions hold that men have a common father; our religion acknowledged nothing of the kind. Our brotherhood, sincere and heart-felt, was a brotherhood of orphans. Doubtless that was why, instead of calling each other brothers, we called each other comrades.


It was a new faith, a new church, and my father was one of the youngest and most talented of its ministers. His mother had given him the double forename of “Louis-Oscar” but the comrades called him, for some reason I never learned, Ludovic. Perhaps they felt that this name with something of the romantic still clinging to it went with his image of a thinker, with his premature baldness, his pince-nez, his short-sighted gaze that gave the impression of distractedly serving out to all around him helpings of black coffee. The swiftness with which he grasped the significance of a political event, with which he could compose an analysis, a motion, an article had made him indispensable as a committee man. His quick understanding saved time and his memory was as good as an archive; unbelievable though it sounds, he was able to reel off all the six hundred constituencies of France with the number of votes obtained in the first and second round by those elected, as well as the dates of birth and death of any randomly selected person from the pages of a dictionary. All his books, with their numerous references to events or speeches, were written from memory, and when he spoke at public meetings or in the Assembly, which he did often at great length, in perfectly constructed sentences and with a tone of voice that started with mingled emotion and irony and ended in a hammering gallop as of brazen hooves, he spoke without notes.

In the Chamber of Deputies it was his duty to welcome at the tribune, in the name of his political grouping, the ministers awaiting their formal appointment and there were some who never quite recovered from this rite of initiation, administered with a fearsome dose of sarcastic comment.  He spoke so much in public that he had nothing further to say at home. He would leave in the early morning and return in the late evening, taking his dinner alone with an unvarying menu of hard-boiled eggs in a salad, grilled potatoes and hazelnuts that he took pleasure in cracking with his teeth, his eyes being focussed on some thought on the tablecloth or glancing sideways at a twice folded newspaper set beside his plate. I would pass through the room without uttering a word, almost on tip-toe, as I made my way around one timidly looked up to by the family as a monument of intellectual concentration.  His eyes would follow me in unspoken sympathy.


From time to time, in summer, he would feel he needed to breathe the air of the place where he was born. The moment he arrived, he would go fishing, his rod over his shoulder and a wicker basket lined with fresh leaves in his hand, on the bank of the little river just outside the village, among the reeds and the wild grass. We would choose a spot with the best shade, not the best for fish. My father would cast his line and then roll one of those cigarettes with the paper that burned more slowly than the tobacco and ended up like a dead leaf in the corner of his mouth.  He would go and stretch out with his back against a tree, his hat over his eyes, telling me to watch the float; it did not move very often but I had to sound the alarm if there was a bite.  After an hour of damp inertia amid the insect buzzing of the meadows, we would go home with one or two little fishes jumping about inside our basket. My aunt would fry them with a laugh at his contribution to dinner.

At table we would have one of those Belfort conversations I have already described, conducted at the local rate of one word every quarter of an hour, a word chosen with care so as not to compel anyone to answer. The presence of the head of the family, his growing reputation as an orator and politician, kept us mute and the gift of repartee that he had inherited from his mother made us careful. We were loaded to the muzzle with proper feelings like canons that nobody ever dared to fire. Trappists are more talkative that we were. By dint of never saying anything we came to think all words inadequate and we managed to understand each other without them.  My uncle would scarcely go beyond a “How are things down there?”, compressing past, present and future into an impersonal question that manifested a reasonable curiosity. The “How are things down there?” contained a discreet reference to the elder brother who had gone off to make his way in Paris and who would answer with a pursing of the lips that expressed at one and the same moment the right degree of modest satisfaction and of scepticism for everything to do with politics since one can never tell how they will go; thus the family was informed and reassured.

When, as tradition dictated, the neighbours came round to take a cup of coffee with us and a piece of the blueberry or rhubarb tart, my father became a completely different person. The imperative to explain and persuade would light up his normally impassive countenance. His hands – he had beautiful hands – would contribute to his argument, thumping on the table top or directing at the hostile thesis a forceful index finger. His slightly hunched attitude no longer suggested a withdrawal into meditation but a crouch preparatory to a spring forward.  He would take as much trouble to convince this humble audience as to carry a motion in a legislative assembly, and we would be privately astonished to see how a person so calm, so undemonstrative, could at a moment’s notice unleash so much energy and display such passion.  We would see how in himself and far from his family he was daily transformed by politics; we understood that he belonged body and soul to an ideal and we could dimly discern that it would never give him back to us.


He was to an exceptional extent detached and free from anything resembling worldly self-interest although he had for a long time and despite his public reputation dreaded a possible return to the penury of the years following his dismissal as a teacher. If a war had not driven him out of them, the humble lodgings in which he began would have been those which saw his end.  He rarely intervened in our daily lives and usually it was only to announce that he would not do so.  On one occasion, however, he did so; it was to order my mother to take back to the toy shop the box of tin soldiers I had received for Christmas; they were exchanged for some sort of culturally acceptable electric game. As a socialist he would never admit that a society should be founded on relationships marked by violence; so, no soldiers under our roof.  It must have been one of the big surprises of my childhood to learn that Soviet Russia had an army with discipline, hierarchy, uniforms. Could it be that even there people had the pessimistic view of human nature that made soldiers necessary? Absolutely not. They were there to resist encirclement by forces of evil. And in any case, the army of the Soviet Union was known as the Red Army, and I used to imagine it painted red, which was enough to make it different from all other armies.


Soviet Russia exercised on my father the same attraction that it did on all socialists of his period.  There came a day when, together with Marcel Cachin, editor of L’Humanite, he set off for Russia, carrying with him a suitcase full of provisions and a mandate to negotiate for his party an eventual membership of the Third International.  The journey took them two weeks via the Baltic, Stettin, Helsingfors; the blockade mounted by the bourgeois powers left no other way to get into the socialist fatherland. At Moscow they met the most notable protagonists of what my father had called, from the first moment he heard of it, “the event of the century”.  They were as men dazzled by that still burning fire. They were admonished by Lenin, preached at in words acid with mockery of the embourgeoisement of the Second International, their one, and of the ideological       impotence of L’Humanite in which, he said, he had never found more than one single socialist column, “that of the subscribers”.  Deafened by the din of doctrinaires over-whelming them with slogans and directives, disoriented by the complex choreography of Slav negotiations, they were compelled, I believe, to undergo certain changes of atmosphere, alternatively of tactics, which followed the initial warmth with icy cold.

But one country had made the transition to socialism, for the first time in the history of the world the least favoured classes held absolute power through the intermediary of their ideological vanguard, Marxism had emerged from its dogmatic dreaming to become part of the life of an immense people. For people formed in the French school of socialism there might have been much that was strange and even shocking about the Russian way of doing things, entirely given to the exploitation of the ideal, far more systematic and far more harsh than their way, far less sensitive to the fine individual distinctions for every shade of which Western congresses piously made room, the very cruelties of the civil war still continuing in the supplementary form of the purge; all these things were covered over by the still abstract but fascinating image of the future city, taking shape before them at the hands of builders who claimed continuity with the men of the 1793 Convention and the fighters of the Commune. When the two pilgrims got back to France, they had given their heart to it and their heart supplied them with reasons. At the subsequent congress, two thirds of the militants responded to their appeal and chose the Third International. This was the split of Tours. My father became the first General Secretary of the French Communist Party.

It goes without saying that my life as a well behaved child was left unaffected by these comings and goings. At home we saw less of Comrade Charles Rappoport, which I regretted. Of all the leading figures of the party he was the one I liked best, because of his Father Christmas beard, his laughter and his jovial personality like a vegetarian ogre. But it seemed he belonged to a different faction, as did Leon Blum, another favourite with children. He had the sensitivity to treat them as grown-ups instead of feeling compelled, as others did, to act like a child with them.  We used to visit more often the home of Marcel Cachin. His wife, a tough American woman, used to lift me up skywards with

every kind of demonstrativeness for which the Belfort regime left me unprepared. Her strength simultaneously frightened me a little yet reassured me. The Party, for me, consisted of her, the Wall and certain undistinguished premises in the Rue Grange-Bateliere which had been built, so I was told, above an underground river; I was never quite able to imagine how it flowed in darkness beneath the pavements of Paris. Was it vaulted over? Were there any Bateliere boatmen?  The fate of this imprisoned stream gave me the shivers.

When my curls were cut off to qualify me to learn to read, the first book given to me by my parents after the Roman de Renart was a work bound in a red cover, as thick as a dictionary, entitled “Little Pierre is going to be a socialist”. So far as I can remember, it was an ideological variation on the theme of the “Tour de France de deux enfants”, composed in such a way as to familiarize little minds in suitable terms with the main theses of Marxist thought. Little Pierre, traveling about and asking questions, became aware of social realities, the oppressions of the working class and the injustices of a society founded on the exploitation of the poor by a privileged class that held on to the means of production and exchange, that is, land, tools, machines or money, and which sucked up all the profit of other people’s labour. This profit then gave it fresh means of acquisition, so that it unceasingly became richer and richer while the poor grew more and more numerous, poorer and poorer.  


Between the class in possession and that of the dispossessed this naturally gives rise to a state of permanent tension or “class warfare” which breaks out periodically into revolts which the laws are simply designed to hinder, prevent or repress. In every age it is the privileged who create institutions in order to perpetuate their privileges; the task of morality was to fetter consciences to the established order, contrary to the justice despised by capitalism and indefinitely postponed by religion.

But Little Pierre was very soon to learn that for this immense evil, as old as history, there existed a remedy.  Public ownership of the means of production and exchange would alter all human relationships at their root, purifying them of every wrongful and pernicious element.  Never again would there be established the relationship of master and slave, of oppressor and oppressed, but only that of man and man in the perfect equality of a universal deprivation decreed by law for the benefit of the collectivity. Out of the goods produced by the workers the community would take what was needed to give “to each according to his work”, pending the moment when sufficient wealth would exist to give “to each according to his needs”.  Avarice, the desire for gain and for power, would no longer find in the new society anything to support or encourage them and would thus die away.  The clash of social and economic interests would disappear together with all that had made them unavoidable and in consequence war, deprived of any objective, would vanish from the face of the earth. Members of the old possessing class, reduced in one way or another to a condition of equity, would be humanized thereby while the workers would recover their dignity together with plenary possession of their own selves. Morality would no longer be the variously penal code of resignation that it once had been, and the last bastions of organized religion, deprived of all that had supported them, would collapse of their own accord.  Men would at long last know the taste of justice and peace. Science would see to everything else.

  I do not presume to summarise Marxism in a single page and I have probably confused the memory of its first lessons with that of my big red book. However that may be, Little Pierre became a socialist. As he was sincere and kind-hearted, I became one too.


As I have said before, God did not exist; but there were a number of ways of not existing.

For some, given to distributing ancient pamphlets detailing “the twelve proofs of the non-existence of God” (thus providing in negative form seven more proofs than the five normally advanced by apologists for the contrary view), the imaginary being designated by the name “God” was quite simply an invention of the priesthood, a term arbitrarily fixed by them to the chain of causality or a childish way of shouting “Time’s up!” before Nature had finished speaking.  It was the priests who wore big black hats.

  Such persons found it a little disconcerting that a man like Robespierre, who concentrated in his own person the entire spirit of the Revolution, should have so frequently made reference to a “Supreme Being” who did seem to share a number of features with the Creator of the religions now abolished. But perhaps it was simply his experienced need of the absolute which drove him to finish off his work at the still dangerously exposed frontier of Heaven by installing there a nameless Being, close enough to the “Great Being” of pagan antiquity, established in a sort of presidency over the natural order, one devoid alike of attributes and of responsibilities.  That was how they explained away the deism of Robespierre.

For others, the existence of God was not simply implausible but positively inadmissible. It would have placed at the origin of all things, between creator and creatures, an inequality calculated to render any argument futile and any dialogue impossible. The act of creation communicates to every creature its form and with that form the laws which are proper to its condition; now the objectors to whom I presently refer could never accept that a law should have been given to them which was never open to them to challenge. Chance to whose activity they attributed the entirety of all that existed did not impose any such demand; indeed what chance had made could be un-made without any contravention of the decrees of an Almighty. There was in them a refusal a priori; they raised what is called in public assemblies a “preliminary objection”.

For many, religion was a primitive form of consciousness that could not resist the advance of knowledge. Men of earlier times, unable to explain natural phenomena, attributed their origin to supernatural beings whose favour it was wise to seek; “God” was in the last analysis no more than the consolidated projection of everything they did not know. The more they knew, the less they would believe; it was obvious that the domain of all religions would diminish in proportion as the domain of science expanded. Religion would meet its end on the day, probably quite close, when everything would be explained. Those who shared this point of view could never accept that the things explained still had even more need of explanation than everything else.   

These theoretical objections could be supplemented, if need arose, by those deriving from the sufferings of the innocent and the imperfections of the Church, but such need arose infrequently.   

Anticlericalism no longer played the central part which had belonged to it in the opening years of the century. The separation of Church and State had indeed effectively separated the hostile parties who had learned on other battlefields to know each other better. In any case, little groups of Christians, breaking with the tradition that had so long held them on the right wing, were calling themselves democrats and genuinely trying to be such in reality. We found them charming without managing to take them quite seriously. At the second Moscow congress a Dutch delegate had raised a gigantic wave of laughter when he proposed the candidature, for some post or other, of a comrade described as a “Christian-communist”.  Having laughed its fill at this contradiction in terms the congress had passed on to other business and my father, who was not actually the secretary, recorded in his notebooks that the Dutch joke had seemed to him a trifle heavy-handed. To us it seemed impossible that people subjected to a teaching authority that proceeded by way of unchallengeable definition, people subject to the duty of going to confession (the practice of “self-criticism” had not yet reached the statute book), people submitting in the inner sanctum of their thoughts to the interventions of the priest, could ever be democrats as we understood the word and even less could they be communists.

But passions on the subject of religion had very much died down.  Even on the great feastdays we did not particularly bother, as the saying goes, to “eat priest”.


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