28 March 2012

Paul Léautaud

A few descriptions of the French writer and theatre critic Paul Léautaud (1872-1956), from an essay in Mavis Gallant's Paris Notebooks (Toronto: Stoddart, 1988).

p. 143:
He was mean, slanderous, and cruel; he could also display generosity and great delicacy in his judgments. Even at his most caustic there was a simplicity, an absence of vanity, rare in a writer. He talked about death and love, authors and actors, Paris and poetry, without rambling, without moralizing, without a trace of bitterness for having fallen on hard times. He was sustained, without knowing it, by the French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure in an artist. Léautaud, at rock bottom, still had his credentials. 
p. 145:
He would not stand for any form of grandiloquence where writing was concerned, and words such as "inspiration" were shot down rapidly: "When I see my father dying and write about his death I am not inspired, I am describing." Asked why he had been his dreadful father's deathbed at all, he said, "It was only curiosity. Cu-ri-o-si-té."
pp. 146-7:
He hated the pompous Comédie Française delivery and thought nothing of bawling objections in the middle of a classical tirade. If no notice was taken of his protest, he simply went to sleep. When he admired a play he put off writing about it because he wanted to take time and thought. As a result the best productions were never mentioned. Often he wrote about something else entirely (his most quoted non-review is about the death of a dog called Span) with one dismissive sentence for play and author.
pp. 147-8:
He had been with Mercure de France for most of his adult life. Only once had he ever thought of going, and that was in 1936, when Georges Duhamel became director and committed several sacrilegious acts: he got rid of the gas lamps and had the offices wired for electric light; he installed one telephone, ordered one typewriter and hired one female secretary. Léautaud, who preferred candlelight to any other, was bothered by the reforms: "Why change something that suits me?" 
p. 148:
During a radio interview he remarked that he had always wanted a pair of checked trousers. A young boy immediately wrote that his father, a tailor, would be glad to make them for nothing. Léautaud took it as an insult and snapped, on the air, "Do these people imagine I go around bare-arsed?"
p. 151:
He wanted to say before he died, "I regret everything," words, he said, "that will sum up my life." The last thing he did say before dying in his sleep was, "Foutez-moi la paix," ["Leave me the hell alone."] which was more typical.