Family sketch

Why should we (re)read the enchanting work of critic and writer François Bott, who died on September 22 ?

We were in the spring, maybe seven years ago. The entire family of Literary Department met at the invitation of condottiere François Cérésa in a restaurant in the 7th arrondissement, behind the Sainte-Clotilde basilica. The shadow of Druon watched over this disparate and undisciplined assembly. François tried to lead his rebellious chroniclers to the sword, with the eloquence of the playboy poulbot and that rogue air that he never departed from. The verb high and camaraderie in the buttonhole. This is the image that I have of a racy and laughing writer who makes fun of progressive affections. The last traces of the French spirit had found refuge in the very street where the Comtesse de Ségur died in 1874. The tables were formed amidst uproar and joy. Everyone respected the tacit rule, not to speak literature under pain of exclusion. What an atrocious lack of taste to recount the miseries of writing and the pangs of creation while stuffing oneself with charcuterie, to list the names of famous writers to show off or to invent imaginary relatives to exist socially. We weren’t at school, nor at the Maison de la Radio. An exam did not end the evening. This mania for good and bad points is the main cause of our cultural downgrading. We knew how to behave. Reading is too intimate an occupation to expose it as food, to deflower it like a hussar, to use it as a social seat. The conversation was spinning on far more important subjects, the French head cheese championship had just announced its podium, Arnaud Guillon was hesitating between acquiring, before the summer, a Peugeot 504 convertible and a Duetto coda longa, which plunged him into an abyss of perplexity; everyone agreed on the essentials, the greed of the publishers, the ugliness of the peripheries, the policing of opinions and regretted the standards of Italian song.

Adriano Celentano was quoted several times during the meal, with a form of adolescent emotion and sparkling eroticism. Everyone was no longer thinking of writing a Nobel-winning masterpiece but of getting on a Vespa and visiting the beaches of Rimini under a cajoling sun in search of fleeting love. The randomness of the placement holds mystery and a bit of gastronomic mysticism. Some evenings, impromptu tables seal wonderful and ephemeral friendships which, long after, spread the venom of melancholy. Opposite me, Roland Jaccard was teasing Judge Lambert on procedural matters; to my right, Gérald Sibleyras, star playwright and Sylvie Perez, fine pen, evoked the London drizzle; everyone laughed; everyone was happy to toast together.

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And then, at the end of the table, the man with the pipe was there, calm and precise, the bearing of a naval officer, with the manners of a Burgundian lord, never a word too much, elegance does not like outbursts of voice, like his limpid and fluid criticisms, shaken by this nostalgic wave whose wave we seek like the attentive surfers of the Basque Coast, he imposed his stature as Commander of Letters, without bulging his chest, without captivate the audience with supernumerary references, without lifting a finger like a good student. We knew who he was, we had all read him, that was enough for our happiness.

Alongside a Renaud Matignon with a more eruptive temperament, François Bott was a light prescriber when the school had already failed in our literary education. These two hunted camarillas and false values, they did not write in leaded ink. They raised our level of reading, taught us to spot dissidents and strengthen our taste, to demand from writers a style and a life-saving impetus. “Born in 1935, François Bott directed the literary pages of The Expressthen The world of books after founding The Literary Magazine»as indicated in the biographical sketch on the cover of his books republished in the collection the little vermilion. In memory of this dinner where we only exchanged a few innocuous reflections, last night I reread his literary sketches collected in We happened to be young. Short quick texts that accelerate from Aragon to Roger Vailland via Vialatte or Louis Nucéra where the art of the critic is didactic without being heavy, instructive without being alarmist, respectful without being fooled. I took a lesson in writing through the conciseness of the subject and the meaning of the filibuster formula. Bott swings, barrels, bombs without the usual effects. In an unusual combination, it captures a writer in a single sentence and captures the very essence of a pen. Of Cioran he writes that“he loved cycling and the awnings of the Lights”. It is admirable and insightful. Of Morand he confesses that “geography was his religion”. From René de Obaldia, a prankster who died at the start of 2022, he describes him as a “black and pink humorist, nothingness puts him in a good mood”. He places Charles Trenet very high in his personal pantheon and welcomes the reappearance of Jean Freustié’s novels. And he wonders, about Aragon, about the style: “Would it be only the art of being forgiven for various villains, for example, this way of ignoring, covering up, if not legitimizing the gulag and the Stalinist dictatorship? Today, it seems that it is the absence of style that legitimizes the worst nonsense and renunciations.

Francois Bott, We happened to be youngThe Round Table, 272 pages, €8.10.


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Family sketch